Monday, February 22, 2010

Short Stories

Lying on my desk is THE NEW DEAD, a recently published anthology of, curiously enough, zombie short fiction. My name is on the front cover as one of the contributors, which is nice, and I rather like my odd little story that opens the book, even if a bookseller friend of mine complained that it didn't have enough eating of brains for his liking. In fact, it doesn't have any eating of brains at all which, by his dietary standards, is dubious to a significant degree, and raises questions about whether or not my heart - or any other comestible organ of my body - was really in the whole zombie thing to begin with.

I think I've mentioned before that I don't really write very many short stories. I've only written four of them since the original publication of the NOCTURNES volume back in 2004, and one of those, "The Cycle", ended up in the revised paperback edition of NOCTURNES anyway, so there are now only three non-NOCTURNES stories that bear my name. When I think about it, "The Cycle" wasn't even published under my own name originally. It was slipped into an anthology of short stories by women writers as a favour to the editor, and I opted for the pseudonym Laura Froom, as that was the name of the vampire in my short story "Miss Froom, Vampire". I think the editor was supposed to reveal my true identity at some point, but either forgot or simply didn't have to, as the volume sold without any need for any additional publicity that might have arisen from the revelation of my involvement. Any sexual confusion on my part that might have arisen as a consequence was presumably to e regarded as collateral damage.

I'm not sure how other writers - or, rather, novelists - go about writing short stories. There are some who seem to produce them the way rabbits produce offspring, perhaps because they provide a way of clearing the head between longer projects, or a means of stretching some unfamiliar muscles. I'm not sure, though, that I'm a natural short story writer. NOCTURNES was a very deliberate attempt on my part to practice the craft of short story writing, and I basically spent a year doing nothing else, spurred on by the BBC's interest in broadcasting them. The first five stories I wrote, therefore, were written to be read aloud, as were a number of the second batch. The stories enabled me to try on new voices, to test myself a little, as well as allowing me to doff my cap to some of the writers of short supernatural fiction who had influenced so much of my reading as a child and a teenager, in particular M. R. James. Once that volume was completed, I returned to writing novels, and didn't really think much about short stories for a while.

Inevitably, though, ideas for stories arise occasionally. I tend to let them simmer, and wait for someone to come up with a good reason why I should set aside time to write them. Shortly after NOCTURNES appeared, my US editor approached me about writing a story for an anthology of tales to be set in hotels and hotel rooms. At that point, I'd been thinking about a story involving a man who finds that he is being haunted by the ghost of his wife, but then starts to wonder about the nature of the haunting. I saw it as a love story, and as it didn't have a setting at the time, a hotel room seemed as good a place as any in which to set it. The anthology itself, which was to have been placed in rooms in a well-known chain of upmarket hotels, was never published due to doubts about the nature of some, if not all, of the stories commissioned. Not to put too fine a point on it, the hotel chain regarded a great many of them as immoral, mine included, even though my story could have been read out in church without causing an eyebrow to be raised. If I remember correctly, one story was rejected on the grounds that it suggested unmarried individuals might possibly be having sexual relations in the chain's hotel rooms. Frankly, I'm not sure that I would want to stay in a hotel that had problems with ANYONE having sexual relations in its rooms, unmarried or not, short of children or animals, but then I'm a bit of a liberal. I almost felt compelled to confess that I'd had sexual relations in one of the chain's hotel rooms, and I wasn't married either, but by that point the anthology was already dead in the water.

The story in question, "A Haunting", was eventually published late last year in DARK DELICACIES III: HAUNTINGS. I think you can see the connection between my title and the title of the anthology. The editors asked if I was interested in writing a story, I told them I had an unpublished story that might suit them, and they read it and were happy to include it, although clearly they, like me, were immoral individuals and therefore destined to burn in hell for eternity. So, after a number of years, "A Haunting" had a home.

In 2008, I was asked by the extraordinarily decent Roddy Doyle to write a short story for THE IRISH TIMES as part of a series celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Actually, I think I was called upon at the last minute to substitute for someone who had dropped out, rather like David Fairclough on the Liverpool team of the Seventies and early Eighties. No matter. An idea for a story had been nagging at me for a couple of months, a tale in which a man describes a painting, and a painter, that may or may not exist. It was all perfectly clear in my head, but I just hadn't managed to get around to writing it down. As it turned out, the particular article of the Universal Declaration that I was being asked to write upon fitted the story perfectly. I didn't have to change a thing. Thus, "ON 'THE ANATOMISATION OF AN UNKNOWN MAN' (1637) BY FRANS MIER' came into being. It was published in the newspaper, anthologised in a collection published in Ireland entitled FROM THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIENCE, and will appear later this year in an anthology of previously published stories to be edited by Peter Robinson.

Finally, "Lazarus", the story included in THE NEW DEAD, was pretty much written in my head when Christopher Golden asked if I'd be interested in contributing to a volume of zombie stories. Now I have to confess that I've never been much of a fan of zombies, Val Newton's film I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE apart, and then only because of Val Newton rather than the subject matter. I think I was more of a vampire/ ghost/ M. R. Jamesian vague creeping entity kind of guy. Reading the other contributions to Chris's volume has caused me to alter that view somewhat, as the other stories are very, very good indeed. I realise now that the emptiness, or absence, that I've always seen as integral to the zombie mythos, and which perhaps had kept me at one remove from it, provides a perfect vehicle for whatever subtext one might wish to apply. In my case, I had long been troubled by the Biblical story of Lazarus. How would one feel if one was wrenched back to life from death? What would one remember? Would one be grateful, or angry? If the latter, would one even know what one was angry about? And so, once again, I was able to say, actually, now that you come to mention it, I might have something for you . . .

You might have noticed that what three of these stories have in common, "ON 'THE ANATOMISATION . . .'" being something of an exception, is their supernatural nature. I think that may be due in large part to my enduring love of supernatural short stories. I'm less comfortable with short mystery stories, as I think the mystery works better on the larger canvas of the novel, while the supernatural is better suited to the short story because the short story places no great premium on an explanation for what occurs, thus enhancing the effect of the uncanny. Anyway, that's an argument for a different day.

For now, though, that's my relationship, as a writer, with short fiction. But in case hordes of editors are even now preparing to bombard me with invitations to contribute to further anthologies, I must state that I have no more ideas in my head for short stories. Not a one. I'm all tapped out. Eventually, another will come along. For now, though, it's back to the next novel.


ODD BLOOD by Yeasayer

JULY FLAME by Laura Veirs

IRM by Charlotte Gainsbourg


OCTOBER SKIES by Alex Scarrow

IT'S ONLY A MOVIE by Mark Kermode

Sunday, February 07, 2010



Off to the airport for a publicity trip to Barcelona. I know, I know: tough old station. Perhaps to atone for this failure to suffer more for my art, I've been trying to learn Spanish by using Michel Thomas language CDs. I've only managed to get through four hours of the initial eight-hour foundation course, though, so I'm a little limited in what I can say, but it's the principle of the thing. Each time I go to a foreign country to promote the books, I try to learn a little of the language, or just enough to be polite. There's nothing ruder than arriving in a foreign country and expecting the locals to understand you if you just. Talk. Very. Slowly. In. English. And. Occasionally. SPEAK VERY LOUDLY.
I'm also one of those people who like to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare for my flight. Unfortunately, Aer Lingus has decided to delay the flight by an hour and a half, so I have a little more time to spare than I might like. Still, it gives me a few precious extra minutes with Michel, and I can now differentiate -ar verbs from -er and -ir verbs. I am, though, still living entirely in the present tense, which might be useful philosophically, but rather leaves one yearning when it comes to elements of discourse.
When we eventually board our flight, some two hours behind schedule, the pilot alludes darkly to 'incidents in Geneva', which sounds a bit like the title of a Len Deighton novel, and suggests a far more interesting explanation for the delay than the reality might provide. The result is that I check into my hotel close to midnight, not having eaten since breakfast. Using my newfound Michel Thomas-derived language skills, I inform the hotel receptionist that "I want to eat something now", which, linguistically speaking, is the equivalent of banging a spoon on the desk and pointing at my mouth. Still, he gets the picture and, rather sweetly, insists upon giving me directions to various restaurants in slow Spanish, only some of which I understand. He doesn't know the way to Velodromo, a classic tapas bar supposedly nearby, which is a bit unfortunate as I want to go there, but using my map and my Tontoesque sense of direction, aided by gnawing hunger and a desperate desire for red wine, I find it, albeit after heading off in the opposite direction for a time, although the upside is that I find a street that I recall from my last trip here half a decade ago, so I now have my bearings. No English menu at Velodromo, but I can remember enough Spanish to ask for Iberian ham, some toast, patatas bravas, and the crucial glass of vinho tinto. Red wine is my friend. I read my book, and am happy.

My Spanish publishers had given me two options: I could either get up at 4AM to catch a flight to Barcelona today, or I could leave on Sunday and have Monday to myself. Not being insane - or, indeed, much of a morning person at the best of times - I now have a day in Barcelona to myself. I decide to do some things that I didn't get to do on my last trip, so the first half of the day is devoted to the architect Gaudi. It was summer when I was last in Barcelona, and the queue to visit La Pedrera, the apartment block that he designed, stretched for hours. Today, there is no queue, so I get to wander around the terrace and the wonderful attic, while feeling grateful that I never had to live in the apartment, which looks like somewhere my Gran would have been happy. From there, it's on to his playful Park Guell, where I have the obligatory coffee (in a city of coffee shops, one rather ends up feeling like a caffeine-fuelled Pavlov's dog) and read my book for a while, then take the Metro to the Barri Gotic. I had planned to return to the Picasso Museum but, like most museums, it's closed on Mondays, so I pay a second visit to the city's main cathedral and take another look at St Eulalia's crypt, which is decorated with scenes of her martyrdom. St Eulalia was, apparently, torn apart with hooks, and then set on fire. Upon her death, a white dove was reputed to have flown from her mouth and ascended to heaven. Nasty business, martyrdom, regardless of the involvement of doves.
The rest of the afternoon is spent drinking outrageously cheap red wine (Two Euro a glass! How does anyone get anything done?) and reading bits and pieces. Although I have my laptop with me, and should be starting the next book - which will probably be a sequel to The Gates - I've just finished editing The Whisperers, and, quite frankly, the last thing I want to do right now is start writing again. Instead, I read some manuscripts for which I've been asked to offer quotes. Arlene Hunt's Blood Money is particularly good. I know Arlene a little, but we haven't spoken much about her work. I wonder if she's read Dennis Lehane, as Blood Money reminds me of the best of the Kenzie and Gennaro books? Although not yet well known outside Ireland, I think Arlene is destined to go far, and it's quite a pleasure to continue reading her manuscript over dinner in the lovely Set Portes restaurant, aided by a fine bottle of Torres wine. (Twelve euro! I may have to move here!)
Lest you think that my life is one long jolly, the schedule for tomorrow is waiting for me back at the hotel, along with a very fetching book on Barcelona's cemeteries, a gift from my publshers. I'm here for the BC Negra crime festival, and tomorrow I have eight media interviews, and a formal event, in a language that I can't speak in anything other than the present tense, and then only to ask for wine, the bill, or more potatoes. Somewhere in the city are Don Winslow, Ian Rankin, and Arnaldur Indridason, all of whom I am fans of, but I have no idea where they might be. Ian I've met before, and like a great deal; Arnaldur I've shaken hands with, although he had no idea who I was, even though I'd given his American publishers a quote for his book; and Don is big in the Snake River Penitentiary in Oregon, if only because I've sent some of his books to one of the prisoners there, and he's passed them around. It would be good to meet up with them all. For now, though, my bed is calling . . .


On which I begin justifying my presence here. The plan is that the interviews will start at 10.00 A.M. and continue until close to 7.00 P.M., at which point we leave to do a book club session at a new local bookstore.
I have an interpreter, Yannick, who is very good, but there is a lingering sense of frustration at not being able to express myself directly. It's my own fault: I should be able to speak Spanish, but then I should be able to speak Italian too, and German. I can muddle along in French but, in an ideal world, I would be able to answer each interviewer in his or her own tongue. Thankfully, though, Yannick is on hand, and the journalists are, without exception, kind and tolerant. Furthermore, they have all read the book - in some cases, they have read a number of my books - and I am both flattered and touched by the effort they have put into the interviews. In the US in particular, I'm used to doing interviews where the publicist's summary is the sole contact that some journalists have had with my book. Here, every question has been considered carefully, and I feel slightly guilty that my answers aren't more intelligent. Still, it's hard to shake off the lingering sense that I am inevitably engaged in a variation on the game of Chinese Whispers: I answer the question; Yannick translates it from English to Spanish, or Catalan; the journalist makes notes of what Yannick says that I've said; and then the journalist filters all of that through his or her consciousness to create the final piece. And that assumes that my original answers made sense in the first place, which I fully accept may not always be the case. Then again, I've given interviews in English to English-speaking journalists, and the final printed piece has included quotes that were completely unrelated to what I actually said.
The day is broken up by a lovely lunch with my publishers (if you're ever fortunate to be published, make sure that Tusquets is responsible for your Spanish translation, and Bromera for your Catalan) and then off for photographs with two Scandanavian crime novelists at Negra Y Criminal, Barcelona's quirky, superb mystery bookstore. By a stroke of luck (or, rather, thanks to the efforts of my friend Mark Hall in Maine, who is a big fan of Scandinavian mystery fiction) I've read both of the writers in question, Camilla Lackberg and Asa Larsson, but we're ships passing in the night. They haven't read me, but that's okay. Next time we meet, they'll either have read my stuff or I can hold over their heads the fact that they haven't, and make them buy me booze.
Back to the hotel. More interviews that make me feel like I know less than the people who are interviewing me, then on to the spectacular Bertrand bookstore for the book club meeting. Whenever I enter a bookstore as good as this one, I want to hug the staff. Everyone is spectacularly welcoming, and I'm acutely aware of how little, in real terms, booksellers are paid. Any writer who behaves like a jerk towards booksellers deserves to be taken out and beaten with remaindered copies of his own novels. My books are everywhere, even displayed in a glass case with a miniature severed arm, the work of one of the staff. Javi, who chairs the session, knows more about my books than I do, and again I feel that sense of frustration at not being able to speak directly to the audience, aligned with an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards all those involved. In addition, a number of the sweet people from my publishers have come along to offer support, and I want to hug them too, except some of them are blokes and might feel that I'm being a bit forward.
The room in which the session is being held is decorated with photos as part of the festival. The photographer, Josep Maria, has created images based on novels by the participating authors. It's flattering to see one's work provide inspiration for an artist, and I decide that the least I can do is to buy one of the prints. I feel a bit embarrassed paying for it, though. I suppose that, once again, I'm conscious the print costs more than most of the booksellers make in a week or more. Booksellers just aren't paid enough anywhere. It's a noble profession, and it behoves writers to remember that.
The staff from Tusquets offer to join me for dinner, but they've all had a long day. There are husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, cats and dogs that should enjoy their company for a while, and they have assorted dinners and lunches to get through with me before I leave. I change my shoes at the hotel, find a kind of oriental tapas bar named Balthazar nearby (twelve euro for a fine bottle of Rioja - are these people mad?), and read a little more Arlene Hunt.
Off to bed.

With Marta, the publicist for my Catalan publishers, I depart first thing in the morning - well, nineish, but it's the principle --for a recorded interview at a Catalan television station. It's for an arts programme, Millennium, and everyone involved, from Ramon, the presenter, to the make-up ladies, is sweetness personified. For the purposes of the interview, I have an earpiece through which an interpreter translates Ramon's questions into English for me, then simultaneously translates my replies into Catalan for Ramon and the eventual viewers. Once again, I have to trust in the interpreter to make sense of my replies and, once again, I wish I was as smart as people seem to assume that I am. To borrow a phrase from the world of entertainment: I'm not really a philosopher, I just play one on TV.
More interviews back at the hotel, and then I have a couple of hours to myself in the afternoon. I had intended to visit the Egyptian Museum nearby, but instead make the mistake of trying to catch up on e-mail, and my free hours disappear. I have enough time to grab a quick cup of coffee, having now forsaken lunch, and then it's off to the main event for the BC Negra Festival. I'm interviewed in a former church by Antonio Lozano, a journalist and writer whom I met on my last visit to Barcelona, and whose company I enjoy; and Laura Fernandez, another journalist, and also a crime writer. Her new novel, Wendolin Kramer: A Novel of Superheroes, Villains, and Depressed Dogs, sounds like great fun, and I look forward to reading it when it is published this year. I sit between them as they take turns to ask questions, and the audience of 200 or so listens through earphones to a simultaneous translation of what I say. It seems to go well, and people even laugh at some of my jokes in translation. This is quite an achievement, as most people don't laugh at my jokes even when they understand English.
A word on the two writers, Antonio and Laura. It takes a certain generosity of spirit for writers on their home turf to interview a visiting writer, or even to accept his or her presence at a festival without reservation. I was at one continental crime festival where a number of the home writers made it very clear that the visiting - and, in some cases, certainly better known - writers were not particularly welcome. This is not the case in Barcelona, and both Antonio and Laura are very complimentary about me and my books, to the extent that, halfway through Antonio's introduction, I cease to recognise the person he's talking about, and begin to wonder if I might not be at the wrong event.
Dinner afterwards with my publishers, including Beatriz de Moura, the director of Tusquets. I am slightly in awe of her, for she knew Salvador Dali, not to mention most of the major Spanish and international writers of recent years. I would happily spend an evening listening to her talk about the trade, and the future of books, and the writers that she has met. And, thankfully, that's precisely what I get to do.
When I return to my hotel, I sit down to write a speech for a booksellers' lunch the next day. Yannick has kindly agreed to translate it into Spanish for me, and I will then attempt to read that translation instead of giving my speech in English. It turns into a bit of an epic, to be honest, but I'm too tired to cut it back. It will have to do as it is.

I have the morning to myself, so I find a wine shop and get a crash course in Spanish wines. After that, it's off to the Tusquets office, which is in a lovely old house in its own grounds. There's even a resident dog, Gunther, for whom I've bought a dog toy on La Ramblas. Gunther seems rather pleased with the gift, in that sedate way that elderly Labradors have. I do an interview for Spanish television, although it's kind of warm in the room and I seem to be basting in my own juices, which can't be a good look. After that, I sign a couple of hundred books, and then Yannick and I go over his translation of my speech, with me marking the more difficult words and adding a phonetic spelling beside them. The speech turns out to be two pages long, and we only have time to go through it twice. At the restaurant, the very good La Balsa, I somehow manage to muddle through the speech, and nobody throws bread rolls at me for mangling the Spanish tongue. Very tolerant people, the Spanish. Afterwards, I'm tempted to knock back as much wine as I can take, but I have an event that evening, so I restrain myself. Most of the booksellers and distributors have at least a little English and, aided by Yannick, I get to chat with most of them. It's on occasions like this that I feel particularly grateful for my profession: they're all interesting people, some of them with decades in the book business behind them, and it's fascinating to talk to them. We also get to flip through the restaurant's guest book, which includes the signatures of Nastassja Kinski, Roman Polanski (!), Haruki Murakami, and assorted European royalty. Oh, and now me. In each case, the restaurant has kindly identified the signature in question, just in case it's not entirely legible. For me, I suspect that they'll add "John Connolly. Writer. Under the misguided impression that he can speak Spanish . . ."
Return to the hotel with time only to change my shirt, and then six of us pile into a people carrier and make our way to the town of Terrassa, some 30 km from Barcelona, for a bookstore event. The people at Bertrand's have made a fantastic window display, there's a good crowd, and the store gives me a beautiful book on Barcelona Art Nouveau as a thank you gift for visiting. It's completely unnecessary, but a lovely gesture.
Into the people carrier for the journey back to Barcelona. I'm starting to fade a little, but there's a cocktail party to celebrate the festival, and I feel that I should show my face. I thank Paco, who owns the Negra Y Criminal crime store and has masterminded the festival, and his wife, Montse. They make a great couple, as it's hard to decide which of them is the nicer, so it's best just to give up and love them both equally. I have a drink and a chat with Ian Rankin, who continues to wear his fame lightly, and remains good company; and Arnaldur Indridason. His new novel, Hypothermia, is probably his best yet, which is saying something given the quality of the preceding books. By this point, though, I'm barely awake. I say my farewells, head back to the hotel, eat some ham and drink a glass of wine at the nearby La Bodegueta, then go to bed. Home tomorrow, and back to writing, but it's been a good week, and I've made the best of it, I think.

So there you have it. Not a bad way to make a living, is it?

This week John read

Blood Money (uncorrected proof) by Arlene Hunt
But Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn

And listened to

The Courage of Others by Midlake