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I write a lot about death. I’m not an ageing goth or anything. I liked the Mission’s cover version of the Kinks’ Mr Pleasant, otherwise I’ve never been into the whole emo scene. I’m an optimist. I believe it’s all going to be ok.
But you just can’t ignore death.
I don’t care what happens after death. Imagine nothing. That sounds alright. Bit dull, but you won’t be aware of it. Alternatively, imagine sitting on a cloud playing a harp, or talking to your late grandfather, or meeting Jim Morrison and Elvis. Could get a little tiresome. I suppose the concept of burning in hell for eternity might be worth worrying about, if there was even the most remote possibility of truth in it.
What interests me about death is how it influences us while we are alive. We know we have limited time and yet we fill that time with such utter nonsense. We behave badly for much of the time; we hurt those we love far too often.
Yet, death is coming.
And it is always getting closer.
Ok, so chanting carpe diem as you leave your front door each day may be a little much. But there is a simple truth in it. This is what you have. All that you have. Make some use of it.
Me? I prefer Mark Vonnegut’s statement about the meaning of life: ‘We’re here to get each other through this thing, whatever it is’
And that leads me on to why I’ve been thinking about death recently. Last Thursday, my father’s wife died. She was just sixty four years old. He has been in hospital recovering from an illness. I had to break the news to him.
It wasn’t hard. It was just a son, telling his dad some very bad news. The words were easy.
My father and I have talked a lot since then, about her, about the good times, about what sort of person she was. ‘She said I was such a clever man’, he said. He has a degree in metallurgy from Leeds University. I think that’s the kind of thing she meant. ‘She wasn’t clever’, he said, ‘But she was kind’.
But she was clever, the right sort of clever. She knew the importance of being kind. Kindness is the cleverest thing of all. And my Dad knows that. He knows she was the most clever, for she was kind.
I could tell you about the things she did and said and what she liked and the places she had been. But everyone has those stories. Kindness is enough. She wasn’t perfect. Neither am I. Neither are you. Life would be very dull if any one of us achieved perfection. She helped others to get through this thing, whatever it is.
I write about death to understand life. We are dragged towards believing the next job, the new car, the other woman will bring happiness. It won’t.
Just four letters: K.I.N.D. If they print that on your gravestone then bloody well done you.
Death is coming people. Be good to each other.
The place and time in which a writer sets his or her stories is crucial. A reader wants to know where and when they are being placed, wants to feel welcome, wants to believe in the world they’re entering. This world may be entirely fictional or the author might be plonking us down in a period of history or taking us to a modern day location. As a writer, it’s important to find or create a setting that gets you excited.
For a long time I’ve been rather excited by a small period of history. For me, it is the time at which the world I know was created, when all that I know began to grow as a result of seemingly unconnected events at home and around the world. Specifically, I have written a tale or two, a novel, and a screenplay set in London in 1962.
To be even more specific. The world changed in October 1962.
I had never seen it written down anywhere how much this little period of time can be considered the birth of ‘now’. And then, after years of trying to convince people what a vibrant environment October ’62 is for setting a story, I found an article that listed all the stuff I had been banging on about.
So, Hilary Mantel can have the Tudors. She can place her irritating personal pronouns within their world. And Bernard Cornwell can have the Napoleonic wars and all that big adventure stuff.
For me, it’s London, October 1962, when two world wars had gone, a nuclear war was imminent, teenagers rebelled, the contraceptive pill was available to women, the British-born black population was growing, and The Beatles’ first single reached number seventeen in the charts.
Have a read of this, written in 2012, so I don’t have to convince you that I’m absolutely 100% right.
My story TRAVEL BROADENS THE MIND has been shortlisted in the Readers Digest 100 word competition. Many thousands of disappointed entrants would be equally disappointed if you, dear reader, didn’t rush to the site to vote for me.
PLEASE tell your friends and family. Or random strangers. It really means a lot to me.
Dear fellow writer,
I am crap and lethargic and full of self-doubt.
So are you.
I am talented and capable and confident.
So are you.
So how do you feel today? Are you the first you or the second? Will you be held back by all your hang-ups and insecurities, or will you be urging yourself on because you know you can do whatever you set your mind to?
I have a way of ensuring that you never have a day where you are entirely unproductive and negative about yourself.
Well, I have a way that works for me.
It’s very simple.
You’re sitting at your desk, pen in hand/fingers on keyboard. And you are all set to start writing. But there is a kettle, and there are teabags, and a radio with all sorts of stations, and there’s twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia and ‘ooh look a cat that looks like Peter Crouch’.
What have we become?
Examine these pictures carefully.
You want one of these things. You want it badly, so badly that you will do literally anything to get it. Or rather, you will do anything literary to get it.
Here’s the thing: Bribe yourself. And be prepared to punish yourself too.
So, let’s say you want to produce five hundred words. Until you do, you cannot have a cup of tea, or a cigarette, or a glass of wine, or the new book you wanted. If you do not produce the five hundred words, then you cannot have the thing you crave, not at all, until you have written those words.
For the purposes of this rant I shall be using this as an example:
If you do not like what you see in the above picture then I seriously doubt you have enough intelligence or feeling to be a writer.
So, it’s an hour later, a painful chocolate-free hour, and you’ve written the words, and their absolute bilge-water.
You now have a thousand words where you previously had a blank page. AND you have a face full of Kit-Kat Chunky. Feels good right?
You may not be impressed with this approach. You may have tried it and are now sitting there mid sugar-rush looking at the word ‘pillow’ typed five hundred times.
Stick with me.
Now you must up your game. What do you crave now? Another Kit-Kat? A glass of vin rouge? A trip to the cinema? It matters not. YOU CANNOT HAVE IT. Because you are about to set your next goal. You must now turn the absolute rot you spewed onto the paper into something that wouldn’t have you sectioned where your house to be raided and your laptop/notebook to be examined by the authorities.
This is my method.
I told you it was simple.
Follow it like I do and you will never get writers’ block. Instead, you can tell your writer friends ‘I’ve written something crap today’. And they will realise how great an achievement this is. Because, like you, they know the agony of staring at a blank page.
But the agony of waiting for a Kit-Kat Chunky has no equal.
So, you couldn’t find the time or the inclination or the inspiration to write a novel?
So you decided to write a short story.
And it’s the story of a man or a woman who are already someplace (because you don’t have time for back story) and they meet someone and some life-changing event happens to them and the story ends with the line (in subtext at least) that nothing will ever be the same again.
And if it’s literary – in other words nothing much really happens except the protagonist is full of angst – then you show it to your writer friends and/or put it forward for competitions or magazines with small readership.
If it’s commercial – in other words vaguely understandable without lengthy debate or a session in therapy – then you show it to your non-writer friends and/or send it off to ‘women’s magazines’.
I never wanted to write short stories. I wanted to write novels (still do/have done). But, thanks to less than a term at Birkbeck studying for an MA I have now written some short stories. Whether they are any good is a question not answerable by me, particularly as part of this current rant.
I’ve also been forced (largely by myself of course, having signed up for the experience) to read lots and lots of other people’s shorts.
Here’s the thing:
Some of them are actually quite good.
I was watching Strictly Come Dancing this week. Don’t judge! This year’s participant from the Eastenders cast was performing her first waltz. ‘Looks easy don’t it?’ she said, ‘Except it aint; it’s bloody hard” (or something like that).
This is the first thing to note. In a novel of a hundred thousand words or so, the odd typo or poor sentence or bad metaphor can be forgiven or overlooked. But in a story of a few thousand words every one counts. Which is quite annoying. ‘Looks easy, don’t it. Well it bloody well aint’.
The next thing to note is that the single play record is no better or worse off because of the L.P. And the sketch show can exist in a world alongside sit-coms and comedic feature films. For that matter, five-a-side football and twenty-twenty cricket are just ‘other forms’ of the nation’s beloved games.
So, suffice to say, I was being a bit of a prat in not embracing the short story. Particularly as I have loved reading Kurt Vonnegut, Franz Kafka, Truman Capote and my old pal Jonathan Pinnock (look him up). The absence of women in that initial list is regrettable, but I am not here to misrepresent the facts.
So, this is my next point. I was worried that reading and writing short stories would be disloyal to the novel, my first love, like an extra marital fling with a younger woman that destroys all we have worked so hard for.
As I say, I was a little silly.
So, after less than a term of study what have I discovered:
1 I am allowed to like short stories as well as novels
2 Only some short stories are shit – so are some novels
3 Not all short stories are pretentious or trite. The ones I dislike are (IMHO)
4 The books/stories I enjoy are not the same as those enjoyed by everybody else
5 Reading short stories provides a short sharp shock to the mind, and raises questions for debate
6 Writing short stories disciplines the author who must get to the point and stick to it
If you too are frightened of a dalliance with the short story then here is a list of stories I would highly recommend. It is a very personal list. But perhaps as a good a place to start as any.
But don’t forget to read and write novels too.
Acid by James Kelman from Not Not While the Giro
Basically a disturbing paragraph. His novel A disaffection is top drawer.
Supreme silliness with a serious side
I read this for the MA. As close to short story perfection for me as you can get.
Jenny is classic Vonnegut, a daft idea to discuss serious stuff
Girl Pool is a cleverly drawn scene at which you will life and then be horrified.
Time Travel in the Same Four Places by Caitlin Moran from Moranthology
You can argue until you’re blue in the face whether this is a short story, but I bet you cry.
Apparently, some people live in houses without books. I know. Weird.
I am not one those people.
We are not one of those families.
My wife likes to sleep on a bed of paperbacks surrounded by the day’s teacups. My son, now fifteen, has never thrown a book away and considers Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series to be of the appropriate length for light reading (3 books of 800 pages each). My daughter, as befits a nine year old, has lots of books of varying shapes and sizes. These can be found under the duvet when getting into bed, on the sofa, in the cat’s food bowl, in the garden, under the brake pedal in the car. You get the point.
We have quite a few books.
And the books have to live somewhere.
So we have quite a few bookshelves.
I decided to document the life of books in my house. Let me tell you, they live well.
As you enter the house the first books you meet are in the hallway.
When a newcomer arrives I expect them to stop by these shelves, to examine our taste, to find shared interests. On the odd occasion that the type of person who simply doesn’t notice these books is allowed into the house, excuses are made by their hosts and their visit is brief. These people are not our people.
I worry about what is on these shelves, what message we are giving to the world. I mean, I have read Dan Brown and Jeffery Archer, but I don’t want them displayed here. First impressions and all that.
Through to the kitchen. Books in the kitchen you say? But of course. This is modern, open-plan living. And my daughter’s clutter must have some place it can be hurriedly tidied to. So there are piles of hastily stacked books to one day be tidied to a proper bookshelf.
And then there’s the cookbook section. Just the basics here: A dollop of Delia, a spoonful of Nigella, a pinch of Jamie, alongside oddments discovered in magazines and newspapers.
In the lounge the blessed elephant (pictured below) safeguards the important manuals for the family: First Aid, the Official Scrabble Dictionary, and Ukulele for Dummies. Classic texts which will be on the school curriculum soon.
I shall leave the front room until last. All will become clear.
So upstairs we go. On the landing is a little gathering of books inspired by a reading list at my son’s school. We dip into this lot occasionally.
On reaching the bedrooms the four different personalities of the family are clearly on display. My bedside books are a collection of favourites and things to read urgently. Some have been there a while, constantly getting shunted down the queue. The wife’s bedside books are similar – favourites and to-reads – but not quite so neatly arranged.
Then there are the kid’s rooms. What have we created? If it weren’t for books they could live calm, minimalist lifestyles.
My daughter has two bookshelves, because when you’re nine books come in all shapes and sizes. The one on the left is the organised one. The picture on the right illustrates my son’s need for more book-space.
So I have deliberately left the front room until last. Come with me now back down the stairs.
Things get serious in the front room. This is the room where I became a man.
Whatever image or scenario has flashed through your mind, I pity you.
This is where I successfully completed a major DIY project. Oh yes. Me. DIY.
The only reason I completed it is because it involves books. And when it comes to books I seem able to defeat my lethargy with all things ‘alpha male will fix it’.
I want you to look again. I BUILT THOSE!!!!!!!!
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that child one is in his GCSE year and therefore has a dedicated desk to the right. And child two is a bit of a dancer and has taken up valuable book space with large, shiny trophies.
I cannot imagine a house without books. My family’s history is in those books. We can remember when and where we got each one, when we read them, how we were feeling, whether we read them alone or shared them. And, if we leave them there long enough, we may have forgotten enough about them to one day take them down and enjoy them all over again.
Author Paul Casselle lives in Spain where he is hard at work on his second novel. I was able to interview him about his first novel, his writing process, and what we can expect from him in the future
So, first of all, give us the pitch. What is Conversations with Eric about?
Eric is primarily a comedy thriller romp. Although it appears an easy read and unchallenging, within the jokey tone is much more. Eric is about self discovery. It is about how, when we really get down to it, we are much the same. Under the bonnet of our skulls we all are pretty f****d up. As much as we like to think of ourselves as in control of our destiny, most of us work from a flawed instruction manual that we have cobbled together from all we have been told and experienced. But the truth is that what we have constructed in our heads is not a response to reality, but a defensive delusion to protect us from reality. The disquiet we all feel is the disparity between the very personal story we tell ourselves and the way life really is!
Simon has a traumatic awakening late in his life, and as his delusional defence unravels, he is forced to face who he is and see the world in all its messiness for the first time. He either rewrites the personal story in his head and stands up or drowns in life’s outrageous fortunes.
What sort of book is Eric? In the days of genre fiction where do you place it?
Eric was described by one reader as ‘Genre defying’. I found this very gratifying as although a book can be roughly categorised as a particular genre, life evades such taxonomy. I strive to write as I have experienced my life; sometimes I am depressed, sometimes ecstatically happy and sometimes moved to tears when I stumble upon deep human connection. Life does not respect genre and nor do I. A book needs to focus on a particular aspect of human experience, but it cannot express that perspective unless it fearlessly encompasses everything it needs to to tell its story. At the risk of being pompous, Eric is transpontine. It crashes the artificial barriers that restrain many books, and I’m glad it does. However, if my arm were twisted, I would place Eric as a crime comedy that refreshes the parts other books cannot reach.
What inspired Eric?
For the last fourteen years I have lived my life with a yellow labrador called Eric. We have been through multiple relationships, changes of residence and even attempted suicide together (that last one was me not Eric, but he was there nevertheless). Eric has been a mirror to me, and in his nearly human eyes, I have seen myself reflected many times.
I wanted to write a book that used Eric’s perceived, extraordinary, canine insight to hang my thoughts on life, the universe and everything. Conversations with Eric is my humble attempt.
Simon, the protagonist, is not exactly a happy bunny. Do you agree with the idea that a happy or contented character cannot be at the centre of a story – that they have nothing to gain or to lose?
There is a common belief that drama cannot exist without conflict. To some extent I agree. I always look at a scene and ask myself, ‘what do the characters want?’ Their needs have to be in conflict; each character must want something that either is mutually exclusive with the other’s desires or they have a reason to scupper the other’s needs.
So, can a scene work if there is no conflict? Yes it can, but it will no longer be drama. Instead it will be a fantasy. The reader will experience an example of how life can be if conflict was absent, and that is really want we all secretly want. However, when we briefly achieve this in our lives, we find that it is rather boring and soporific. Motivation comes from wanting things to be different. If we are happy with the status quo, then what will motivate us? In a journey we are motivated to get to our destination. When we get there we stop or look for a new destination. We are only motivated to move when we want to be somewhere we are not. We may complain that in our busy lives we have no time to stand and stare, but I believe that if we did, we would hate it.
The book starts appearing to be one kind of thing and then sort of flies off and becomes another. You mentioned the word ‘romp’ which is exactly how I would have described it. Are you perhaps messing with people’s expectations?
I have been inspired by writers such as John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut. They have demonstrated the power of fearing nothing. They kill-off main characters, jump between genres and moods, and generally will do anything to tell the story and keep the reader with them. Although I often feel scared that I am overstepping the boundaries of novel writing, I find that I cannot help myself. Eric starts as a tale of middle-class, middle-aged decline, but quickly swings unashamedly into crime, philosophy and the evil monster of global banking. But however serious the story becomes, I find it impossible to lose my sense of humour. The late stand-up comedian George Carlin had a wonderful way or commenting on the insanity of human society by standing to one side as a spectator and laughing at us, but always with compassion. I want to do the same. The man that cries at adversity demonstrates defeat, the man that laughs at adversity telegraphs hope.
What’s your personal favourite part of the book? Why?
On the few occasions that I have re-read Eric, I find myself enjoying both the high comedy and the deep, dark drama, but if I were forced to choose a favourite passage I think it would be chapters 27-28. By this time the story has acquired so many layers, and Simon is in so deep that a computer-style re-boot seems the only answer. But although the drama has reached frightening heights, the humour lifts it into Pythonesque territory. I laugh every time I read it. Is that intolerably immodest?
How long does it take you to write something like ‘Eric’?
The first chapters of Eric were laid down in 2009. Then I fell into a writers’ torpor and wrote nothing for several years. I moved to Spain in 2014 and found new inspiration. I picked up where I had left off, twenty-one thousand words, and within a few months finished Eric – my first full novel – at seventy-six thousand words. I’m now more than half way through my second novel – If The Bed Falls In – a very hard-hitting visceral spy thriller; a real departure from Eric!
Do you have a writing regime?
The best aid to getting on with writing was creating a spreadsheet schedule. It projected the project with day-by-day objectives. Each day I would write and enter the word count, and the spreadsheet would instantly show me how ahead or behind I was.
The target I set was very low, so very achievable; 500 words a day. This meant that I steamed ahead and finished many weeks before my computer predicted. I would highly recommend this method. It is still serving me well on my second novel.
What’s next? Will there be any more Eric inspired stories?
As I have already said, I am working on a second novel – If The Bed Falls In. Although there have been a few personal life hiccups, I still hope to finish by the end of the year.http://www.amazon.co.uk/Conversations-Eric-adventure-laughing-matter-ebook/dp/B00XRMZPCG
I have some other projects pencilled-in for after that, but I have no current plans to continue the Eric saga. However, if I get inundated with impassioned requests, that may change!
Facebook: Paul Casselle – Writer
The following works by Paul Casselle are available on Amazon:
Blue Skies Over Dark Days – Six painfully funny stories from my youth.
Everyone Else’s Everyone Else – A short story to make you see others from a new perspective.
Conversations with Eric – The novel that we’ve been discussing – a romp of a read.
With grateful thanks to Paul for his time.
News flash – There are things that irritate me even more than short people with umbrellas, leaf-blowers, and people who go to the gym.
Top of my list of grievances – and it’s a long, long list – are people who, largely in their own opinion, are more than capable of doing something but instead do absolutely nothing other than criticise those that do.
It’s become our national sport. We embrace celebrity for its own sake, people who are famous but no-one can remember why. But we absolutely crucify our artists and politicians and sportspeople.
And, yes, I did put politicians in there. Because whilst most people seem happy to criticise our elected and non-elected representatives, most people do not seem to be willing to put themselves forward as an alternative. I know some people will talk about the ‘privileged’ classes and those with contacts. I hear you, but if those are the barriers in front of us and we choose not to be smashing away at them with whatever tools we have at our disposal then surely we cannot criticise. Conversely, those that don’t simply rage but act and think and do – well, I have so much admiration for them that it hurts.
Leaving politics behind (phew), it’s the writing thing that bothers me most though. I can pretty much guarantee you’ve heard my least favourite statement before:
I have a great idea for a novel.
It is absolutely marvellous that the idea exists. BUT – and this BUT is a very large one indeed – it does not exist until you have written it. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but here is the comment that often follows:
I would do it if only I had the time.
If this person owns a leaf-blower and is carrying a gym-bag I have to be dragged away in tears.
Ok. I confess. The reason I hate this conversation is because it took me so long to realise all this in myself. For most of my pretty pathetic existence I didn’t really do anything at all. I didn’t produce anything. I had great ideas, dreams of paintings I would paint, music I would write, and most of all novels I would pen. And it took me half a life to realise I actually had to spend the time doing so. Or else it was all hot air. I still talk too much about the thing I am going to do, the piece I am going to write. BUT – another sizeable BUT – I am a writer that writes. And I have been for long enough to write hundreds of thousands of carefully crafted words.
Part of me wants you to read those words and think they are the wisest and most fabulous words you have ever read. I want you to cry or laugh or sing or dance down the street chanting my name. But another part of me is more than happy to know this:
I needn’t have bothered, but I did.
And of that I am very proud.
What is a life well lived? There is of course no answer to that. But I think the world of the Arts is at least one thing that makes us human. But what exactly is the point of a poem? Is there any ‘need’ for a painting? Particularly when it’s not very accurate! And as for music. Imagine your perfect son or daughter growing up to be a musician – heaven forbid.
The question for me is ‘what is it that we consider to be important?’ And I have an answer to that, an answer which justifies the arts above all else. It’s important to live with your heart and your mind and your soul. Which you can’t do in an office filling out accounts on a spreadsheet. It’s important to have experiences, to try new things, to use every one of your senses to gather data, and live.
With this in mind I have enrolled on a Masters course at Birkbeck in London. After two years of immersion in this institution I should be the proud owner of a certificate branding me ever more a Master of the Arts specialising in Creative Writing.
Pointless, you say?
I don’t think so. Because writing is the greatest of all activities. It allows us to experience, to react, and to analyse. It allows us to re-experience. It allows us to see through another’s eyes. It allows us to keep coming back and wondering whether there is anything important to be found. Here’s a quote I rather like:
We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect. – Anaïs Nin
So, for a couple of years at least, I’m going to taste all that life has to offer, at least twice. And I’m going to write it all down.
Another quote I like goes something like this; it’s from one of Jeremy Hardy’s rants on Radio 4’s News Quiz:
Unless you’re a bin-man or a neurosurgeon, what you do in your job on a day-to-day basis is utterly unimportant. You must realise this, and stop taking yourself so seriously.
It’s not an exact quote, and probably not original, but you get the idea.
And I’m totally with him, particularly when the majority of us sit in offices and go to meetings and fill out spreadsheets on computers. Not to mention spending time calling IT to come and fix that computer. Then there’s the time spent on appraisals, recruitment, and the incredible number of hours spent coming up with new passwords (at least one capital letter, one number, a hieroglyph and a number which is a factor of pi).
It’s all rather meaningless.
And I’m looking for some meaning.
I’ll let you know if I find any.