What Identity Crisis?

Cliché alert – ‘No two writers are the same’. OK, but there’s more because ‘No ONE writer is the same’ either. Here’s what I mean.

We all know the publishing business has changed significantly and increasingly quickly over the past ten years or so. When I started writing novels as opposed to plays, you polished your MS, printed out a copy (not cheap if it ran to 400-600 pages) and sent it out to agents and/or publishers. Postage wasn’t cheap either (you also had to cover the costs for its return if they didn’t like it). Then, through the (sometimes) months you waited for them to reply, you got on with the next novel. Meantime, you also had your day job and you were a husband, wife, lover, significant other, hermit, father, mother, son, daughter, outcast, or whatever other roles you chose or your social situation imposed on you. See what I mean? There were (and are) several people inhabiting your body. But, back then, the writer bit was just that – you wrote, sent your stuff away, waited patiently but eagerly for a reply, got rejected and did it all again or got accepted and wrote another one.

 

Today, though, even that writing bit has fragmented. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a serious mental condition and not a term to be used lightly but being a writer today doesn’t just involve the one role. There’s still the writing (the best bit), but there’s also:

  • the PR person, desperately trying to create and project a cuddly profile;
  • the fish out of water, trying to learn and apply marketing techniques;
  • the social networker, scrolling through tweets and Facebook comments with all the other writers;
  • the blogger, trying to sell books;
  • the harlot, willing to do just about anything to claw his/her way up the sales lists;
  • the reviewer;
  • and the unrecognised genius, whose novel will change the course of humanity but lies misunderstood in the depths of a computer.

I exaggerate, of course, but only on the basis of fairly common experiences shared by most of us.

 

But why am I saying stuff you all know anyway? Because what I’m really doing (with very little subtlety) is crawling towards a point and, en route, grabbing the chance to boast about yet another of my ‘selves’.

Several times, over the past few years, I’ve become an ‘award-winning author’ and, this month, I’ve been given another one – this time for The Figurehead. OK, trumpet blown, so what?

The first time, the news turned me into a six year old on Christmas Eve. And yet, simultaneously, I  rejected (and still do reject) the idea of ‘competitive literature’. Even though I know there are terrible novels out there as well as terrific ones, I applaud anyone who’s had the stamina and the commitment to actually write one and see it through to the end. But if I deny the competitive element, where do sales figures fit in? In the end, being able to add that little ‘award-winning’ tag to me and some of my books theoretically gives me a wee marketing edge. Reality-check, though: I’ve worn the tag long enough to realise that it is emphatically ‘theoretical’. It doesn’t sell any more books and seems merely to provide new opportunities for friends and family to find satirical ways of saying the words  ‘award-winning’:But it also opens up another tricky area when it comes to the various ‘selves’ I was speaking of (and at last we’re nearing the point. My awards were for very different books – a spoof spy/crime thing,  a stark revenge/vigilante story with a pretty chilling resolution, two historical romance/crime novels. So what does that make me? A funny man? A Romantic? A scary man? And what about the other stuff, the police procedurals, the non-fiction, the kids’ stories?

Years ago, my then agent, the late Maggie Noach, introduced me to someone as ‘a nice man with nasty thoughts’. Multiplying your ‘selves’ can be counter-productive because readers, naturally enough, like to know what to expect when they buy a book. If they’ve enjoyed your gore-saturated slasher mystery, they’ll probably feel cheated if your follow-up is a light-hearted romantic romp through the tulips. In a way, they impose an identity on you – and they have every right to do so. Ah, but what happens if it’s not you but the characters in the follow-up who decide that they’ve gone off the idea of sinking their fangs into lily-white necks and instead want to fall in love and settle down in a semi-detached in Cheltenham? Not much I can do about it. How confusing this writing stuff is.

(The above was written by award-winning author Bill Kirton.)

Predators

I’ve written plenty of blogs on the processes of writing, but not so many giving examples of the stuff I produce. I have a significant file full of short stories which I intend to raid now and then to make my blog posting more frequent. This one’s called PREDATORS and, thanks to some very perceptive structural suggestions from my friend Anneke Klein, it’s much better than my first draft. You can also hear me reading it over on my friend Richard Wood’s word count podcast.

Predators

All his adult life, even after he’d started the affair with her, he’d slept the sleep of the innocent, dreamed the purest dreams. The change began the day the newsfeed on his tablet reported the suggestion that wolves should be reintroduced into the Highlands. The imbalance in Scotland’s wildlife had started with the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, when families were evicted to make way for sheep and deer. At one time the country had had a thriving wolf population. In fact, officially until 1680, when a Cameron laird killed the last one in Perthshire, although there are other reports of them being seen over a century later. The purpose of restoring a top predator, which itself was prey to nothing, was to control the excessive growth of the deer population. As he read, though, he was reminded that most of the damage had been done by the most successful predator of all – homo sapiens.

But it wasn’t thoughts of the wolf itself that changed his sleep patterns. No, it was the area earmarked for its reintroduction, an estate north of Inverness, across the Moray Firth. Not far from where they’d had their earliest lovers’ meetings in the woods and glens of the Black Isle. The chosen locations, Glen Mor and Glen Alladale, bordered on what had been their playground in those early days.

Their respective marriages and jobs had compelled them to conduct most of their affair through emails and even an occasional letter. When they did actually meet, the intensity was beyond anything either of them had known before, so their messages struggled to articulate what they felt and to convey the fullness of their passion. They were largely repetitive, with desperately echoing ‘I love yous’ and tame efforts at quantifying just how great that love was.

He’d kept them all in a carrier bag from a long defunct supermarket and when they’d eventually divorced their partners and become an official couple, the need for emails vanished and he hid the bag in a cupboard at work.

Over the years, naturally enough, the familiarity of day-to-day living took much of the heat and power out of their passion. The desperation the letters carried of needing to be together, the yearnings to dispel the distances between them and the pain of frequent separations and absences were now irrelevant, and the two young lovers evolved into settled, contented co-habitants.

So when the news of wolves brought back memories of gentle days among the birch trees of Alladale, he remembered the emails, retrieved the forgotten carrier bag, and began re-reading its contents.

From the very first one, the shock of the separate emotional paths and distances the two of them had travelled was extreme. Not only was he reminded of the intensity of her early greed for him, but he was shocked by the distance he himself had moved from the – to use her words – ‘beautiful man’ he’d once been. She’d described how he sounded, moved, touched her and how these and other aspects of him had ignited feelings in her she’d never before experienced. She was addressing someone godlike, of whom no vestiges remained in the middle-aged person reading her words in an office some thirty years after she’d written them.

And that’s when sleep started to become elusive for him. He couldn’t dispel the images of the person who, for her at least, he had once been. It was flattering to imagine having had such power, but emasculating to know that it had been lost. The innocence was gone. Now, through his semi-waking dreams crawled babies with lost expressions on their faces, hopeless, envious men hungry for her love, cold-eyed, sexless women who aroused nothing in him. His nights were troubled. In his dreams, he wandered alone, restlessly now, through copses of birch trees like those to which they’d driven, back in the day, to make guilty love far from the eyes of witnesses.

All he wanted was to recapture that love, to become once again, the prince she’d made of him. Night after night, with her breathing softly beside him, he would summon up the usual memories of the two of them strolling between the birch trees, holding hands, stopping for frequent kisses, enjoying the silence of the Highlands, the sweetness of the air.

Then, one night, in a half-sleep, the dream walk became difficult. It was strange. They were together, but they began to slow. Their feet started dragging though drifts of snow. His dream-self wrapped his arms around her. She turned her head to look up at him, but the smile and love had gone from her eyes, leaving just indifference. She pushed his arms away, stepped back from him, and moved slowly towards the trees, where she stopped and stood knee deep in the snow, her eyes holding him.

He felt a hollow loneliness. Across his extended, beseeching arms lay the black and silver top whose removal had always been the prelude to their love-making. He dropped it in the snow and reached for her again.

But she was gone. In her place, head lowered, its yellow stare holding him firmly, was a wolf.

He knew there was no escape from it. They’d made their choices, surrendered to their instincts with total commitment, stepped outside ordinary living. Briefly, it had consumed them, closed off normal avenues. But what had it cost?

The eyes held him in their trap, there was nowhere to go. He didn’t know whether rediscovering and accepting love’s constant agonies again would end with his knife’s upward thrust finding a jealous heart under the fur, or hungry jaws tearing at his own throat.

An Old Man and some People

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The first of my radio plays to be broadcast, long, long ago, was called An Old Man and Some People. And I think its genesis provides a good answer to the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

The main substance of it came from an incident which happened when we were at some friends’ for dinner. They lived in a house on an estate to which new houses were still being added. We’d finished an excellent meal and there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman asking whether the grey Citroën outside belonged to any of us. It was mine.

The policeman was very polite. He just wanted me to park the car around the corner off the main road. Apparently, the night watchman on the building site had ‘reported’ it. God knows why. There were no yellow lines or anything. In fact, he was just doing his job. But when the policeman left, I was angry. I was all for going out and telling the man what I thought of him. It didn’t help that our hosts tutted and said he was a nosy old bugger.

But the following day – sober, of course – I was ashamed of the way I’d felt. I was young, having a good time, eating great food and swallowing litres of wine in those absurd drink-driving days. He was old, alone, stuck in a hut on a building site. And I wanted to have a go at him. I disgusted me.

Then, a month or so later, I was looking through some newspaper cuttings. I clip out things which seem out of the ordinary, absurd, sad or anything which makes them stand out. This one was in the tragic category. A man was accused of the manslaughter of his wife. She’d been terminally ill for a while and was always asking him to finish her off to stop the pain. He couldn’t do it. Then, one day, she fell and was just lying there, so he took a pillow and held it over her face. Then he phoned the police and told them he’d killed her. The irony was that he was acquitted because the autopsy showed that his wife was already dead before he held the pillow to her face.

That awful image of the poor man, after months of suffering, ‘suffocating’ his wife’s body had haunted me but I’d put the cutting with the rest and forgotten about it. But now, suddenly, by making it a part of my night watchman’s past, I had a play which wasn’t just a petty subjective record of my unreasonable anger and consequent shame, but something which worked at a different level. Contrasting the relative levels of his deep suffering with the triviality of my childish petulance made its resonance far greater, its conclusions less facile. It might now constitute a play which involved listeners at a deeper level.

As I said, it was the first play I had broadcast. I still think it was possibly the best I ever wrote, too. I also realise now that it begs another question. What’s the morality of me using a true, tragic story to give substance to my writing? That’s not an easy one to answer. By writing the play, I may simply have compounded my guilt.