A Grungy Novelist


I wonder about the credibility of the crime writer who’s giving two workshops at the World of Words Festival in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire on Saturday 8th September. According to the publicity for the events, his ‘grungy novels are set across Scotland, with his first set in 1870’s Aberdeen’. Basically, I’m asking myself ‘would I want to go to find out about the genre from someone like that?’

In fact, Wikipedia tells me that ‘Grunge Lit is an Australian literary genre usually applied to fictional or semi-autobiographical writing concerned with young people living in suburban or inner-city surroundings. The genre characterises itself by examining “gritty, dirty, real existences” where life revolves around a nihilistic pursuit of vices such as sexdrugs and alcohol’.

But this guy’s novels are all set in Scotland, which means none of that applies. So what are these ‘grungy’ novels he writes? I’ve heard the word applied in various contexts so, just to be sure, I checked the online dictionary. Yes, ‘grunge’ is primarily ‘dirt; filth; rubbish’. Next, it’s ‘something of inferior quality; trash’. Basically, the dictionary suggests it’s maybe a combination of grim, sludge and drudge.

So what would I expect if I were to go along?

Well, the smell would hit me as I went into the room and there he’d be, slumped across a table, a fag in one hand, a glass in the other. His dermal dereliction would have spread flakes of skin all over the table and his books where it would merge with the dandruff into an unsavoury grey coating. As yet another mucus-laden cough racked him, his rheumy eyes might be raised to look at me and he’d drag a sleeve across his nose to remove its discharges.

The only other people there would be a vagrant, sleeping across three chairs at the back and two Jehovah’s Witnesses smiling at the wretched writer. The struggle I felt between not wanting to offend the man and preferring to spend my time anywhere but there would be quickly resolved and I would leave with his profanities ringing in my ears and clutching some pamphlets handed to me by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But wait, as I look again at the publicity blurb, I see that his name’s the same as mine. Exactly the same. Bill Kirton. The Alternative Dimension which featured in my last novel has become a reality and, on that Saturday in September, I will be the creature slumped across that table leaking fluids, shedding bits of my epidermis and haranguing the empty chairs, vainly trying to justify myself for having insulted the reading public by producing words and works unfit even for our already overflowing sewers.

If any of you do come along, please be gentle with me for, clearly, I have sinned.

A Festival And A Party

ebookfestIt’s coming up to the end of the first week of the second online ebook festival. I’ve been marginally involved in it by offering what are called ‘workshops’ in comedy. In fact, we haven’t yet achieved the level of interactivity that constitutes what I’d describe as a workshop. Nonetheless, I’ve had suggestions from visitors about the sort of scenarios which are ripe with comic potential and, next Monday (19th August) I’ll be writing a summary of what we’ve done as well as quoting examples of sketches sent in by visitors. At the moment, I’ve only received one such sketch (thanks Angus) so I may have to supplement my examples with recordings of sketches and songs which I wrote and performed with my wife at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe many years ago.

But my bit is just a minor part of what’s been happening this week and if you haven’t yet visited, please do yourself a favour and dip into the programmes and events. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t find something there that really captured your imagination or stimulated your curiosity. Kathleen Jones has been hosting a real workshop on Life Writing, with volunteers sending in exercises for her comments and the comments, together with Kathleen’s own observations, add up to some great advice for would-be writers of memoirs or autobiographies. Two other hosts have been offering variety every day: Brendan Gisby, who’s in charge of the regular short story slot, which has featured contributions from authors on the theme ‘Being Scots’; and Roz Morris links to some very varied music tracks through her special angle on the ‘Undercover Soundtracks’ of different authors.

Catherine Czerkawska’s been writing about the mid-list and the changes in publishing over the past few years, Chris Longmuir’s in the middle of a comprehensive look at the whole crime genre and Dennis Hamley has been contributing a stunning series on ghost stories and the supernatural in writing. There’s also drama from the festival director, Cally Philips. (How she finds time to write it, plus a series on blogging, plus all the PR work, plus introductions to all the events, plus God knows how many other things, I’ll never know.) Today sees the last of Ingrid Ricks’ Advocacy residency, next week David Wailing will be the Sci-Fi writer in residence and there are two other residencies this weekend: Horror by Mari Biella and Travel Writing by Jo Carroll.

There’s also a very different late-night thread from Jian Qiu Huang in Australia called Conversations with the Universe. They’re thought-provoking and entertaining on the computer but if you’ve got an iPad, have a look at them on that.

awesome indies badge for website And while I’m encouraging you to visit other places, here’s advance warning of an online party. It’s starting at 1am on August 21st and going on until 12pm on the 25th  (Pacific Daylight Time, whatever that is), and it’s being organised by Awesome Indies. That’s a website  which chooses and lists independently published books which reviewers have recognised as being of high quality. Of course, I would say that wouldn’t I because two of my books feature there? But their selection procedures are very rigorous and the aim is to help readers distinguish between books that are frankly substandard and those which are professionally produced and definitely worth reading. There’ll be quizzes, freebies, special offers and prizes as well as information about various aspects of indie publishing. The fact that it coincides with the final days of the Ebook Festival suggests it’ll be a busy time but it only takes a click to get there.

Happy clicking!

A Chance Occurrence of Events Remarkable either for Being Simultaneous or for Apparently Being Connected

!The FigureheadForgive the title but I’m currently writing a sequel to The Figurehead  and I find myself doing quite a lot of Victorian-speak. It is, however, that activity that’s produced this blog. So let’s start with a question: what connects the first ship to have a clipper bow, Monsieur and Madame LaFarge,  19th century melodramas and me? The question is rhetorical, of course, although if any of you do have the right answer, that merely adds to the frisson I get from it.

I’ve mentioned the ship with the clipper bow before. She features briefly in The Figurehead and was designed, built and launched in Aberdeen. Her name was Scottish Maid. In those days, ships were taxed according to the depth of their hull and boat builder Alexander Hall reduced this depth by extending the bow above the water line. The result was not only lower taxes but also a sleeker, faster, more efficient bow.

The LaFarges were around at the same time as the Scottish Maid – Marie for rather longer than her husband because she was tried for his murder in 1840. And that was also the period at which melodrama was thriving in France, the UK and elsewhere.

So those are the ingredients and when you put them, The Figurehead, its sequel and me together, you get the subject of this blog, of which the title is a dictionary definition. In a word, coincidence, which is rife in melodramas, most of them relying on unexpected family relationships, birthmarks, people turning up at exactly the right time and so on. For me, an unrepentant cynic, atheist and believer in common sense, most events that seem to reveal some hidden plan or underlying structure are coincidences. But I do prefer the happy ones.

So what?

Well, this morning, I was just finishing chapter six of the sequel when I decided to change the way the victim had been killed. I’ve been struggling a little with it because the crime part of it all is less interesting than the other themes – Helen’s first steps in her father’s business, a new, unusual figurehead commission for John, and the visit of a theatre troupe to Aberdeen to perform nautical melodramas. I was trying to achieve too many things through the way the victim died so it was muddled and the clues and red herrings weren’t easy to find. So I decided to poison her instead. Arsenic was a favourite poison for the Victorians. They could buy it at the apothecary’s and no records were kept of purchases or sales. It was also an ingredient in various medications, including a cream used by actresses (and ladies in society) to lighten their complexions and, fortuitously, my victim is an actress.

Back, for the moment, to The Figurehead. When I was writing it, two striking coincidences occurred, one of which was to discover that I shared a birthday with Scottish Maid. She was launched on August 10th 1839, exactly one hundred years before I arrived. Pure coincidence, but it gave me a childish pleasure.

And the pleasure was repeated today. You see, I needed to find out how they performed autopsies in 1842 and how they discovered that the death might be due to arsenic poisoning. My luck was in. A Scottish chemist, James Marsh, had devised a test for it in 1836 and ‘The Marsh Test’ was used in court cases thereafter as an almost infallible technique. Its most famous case was that of Marie LaFarge . In 1840, two years before the year in which I’ve set my novel, she was accused of murdering her husband, Charles. I read all about it on several sites and it gave me all the information I needed to check the authenticity of the case I was building.

And on what date did Charles and Marie marry? Yes, of course. The same day that saw the launch of the Scottish Maid, August 10th 1839, exactly one hundred years before a screaming, wrinkled me emerged in a Plymouth Nursing Home. And that was seventy-four years ago today.

Coincidence or all part of God’s plan? You decide.


P.S. The plot thickens. I wrote and posted the above yesterday. I’d just read about the LaFarges’ marriage date and mentioned the coincidences in an email to a friend, Anneke. That made me decide to blog about them.  The email was to thank her for a book she’d sent me – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – a unique, magnificent novella which I read at a sitting today, Sunday August 11. It really is beautiful and written in a prose I wish I was capable of imitating. In just 116 pages, it covers the life of a labourer in the American West from 1917 to the 60s and moves between homespun anecdotes, the paranormal, mystical and actual experiences and vast social changes. The reason I mention it in this postscript, however, is that its only mention of a specific date comes 7 pages from the end:

‘Beside the communicating doors of the passenger car he rode out of town, there hung a calendar that told him today was Sunday August 11‘.

Somebody’s trying to tell me something.