Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Buck, Naked

Buck, Naked is up at Pank Magazine. A fine home indeed for the little guy.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin is the moral of Voltaire's Candide - the "subdued vein of wisdom" as Italo Calvino puts it in his essay, "Candide, An Essay In Velocity". The idea expressed by "It is necessary to cultivate our garden" is essentially Aristotelian: don't rely too much on theory, don't rely too much on experience - but try to find a happy medium between the two. Calvino also discusses how Voltaire's work travels the world at great speed, calling it 'around the world in eighty pages'. I would go further than this and claim that the brief, elliptical form of Candide fits its subject very well. It is, in essence, a moral fable for the rational mind. It works because it is built on solid philosophical foundations.

That, in short, is what makes Candide great. Attention needs to be paid to such things, then, if you're going to try and re-work that book. Michael Chabon has a crack at it with 'Gentlemen of the Road'. Evidence for this can be found in the form of the work, (short and elliptical), the narrative (a journey taken) and the themes (religion, war and politics). Perhaps the biggest clue in every sense, however, is the elephant named for 'Cunegonde' - the unfortunate character in Candide who gets fatter and fatter.

What Chabon completely misses, however, is both of the things that made Candide so good. In the first place, the geo-temporal range is limited to the 10th century land of the Khazars. More damaging, however, is the complete lack of philosophical underpinning. What we get instead is a broad range of Hollywood cliche: The pretend fight, the hero going after his hat, the condemned man saved in the nick of time and so on... which is supposed to be entertaining in and of itself. Voltaire certainly worked with the adventure story trope, but he also satarised it, and he did so with a point in mind. Chabon seems to believe that the adventure story is enough in itself, even in a short and elliptical form. But it isn't. The experience is as hollow and empty as, say, 'Tap Dancing with Jean Claude Van Damme', and no amount of Khazar names, castles and religious limning can make up for the loss.

I didn't like the movie version of 'Wonder Boys' either. So I guess that's it for me and Chabon.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Super Friday Once In A Lifetime Prompt Volume One

A dog on a bicycle, spotted and snapped in Bucharest. The bike has been specially modified for EU Dachshund Comfort Needs. The legs up top belong to the owner, who had stopped for a beer. The dog wears an expression of world weary melancholy, as if it had cycled to the towers of Byzantium and back, seen it all, and just wants now to walk, trot and scamper, like normal dogs do. What's his/her story? Where did she come from and where will he go? Note that the bicycle has the word 'Rich' written on it. Does this dog have a dark secret? A cache of bones somewhere? It's up to you to decide.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Foolish on a Wednesday

In for the hat trick, it's 'Foolish Creatures' up at Toasted Cheese, yesterday.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Elephant on Tuesday

The Elephant In The Coffee Shop
- a new piece up at Grey Sparrow Press, and very handsomely presented too, with a nice photo of, I think, Florence.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Sunday on Monday

How I Spent My Sunday is up at Night Train. It's a short one.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Ten Facts About Vatra Dornei

1. Vatra Dornei is a town set at a point where two rivers meet in the Bucovina region of Northern Romania, where the Carpathian mountains also meet the border with Ukraine.

2. What Vatra Dornei does not have: Internet Cafes, Mobile Phone Centers, Starbucks, IMAX, Ihop, Istore, I-anything.

3. You will never starve in August in Vatra Dornei. There are apples everywhere and the pavements are made of cheese.

4. Vatra Dornei, like much of Bucovina, is regularly visited by clouds in summer. They creep around the mountains and hug the streets.

5. Lordini's restaurant in Vatra Dornei do an excellent tuna, garlic and mushroom pizza. It costs about one dollar.

6. Vatra Dornei is full of roosters. No alarm clock required.

7. Vatra Dornei has natural spring water. You can walk into the central park anytime and collect it in a bottle. The park is also full of squirrels.

8. Everyone in Vatra Dornei and Bucovina fills every available space with flowers.

9. Vatra Dornei once had a thriving population of Jews, Germans, Ukranians and Romanians. There is a Jewish cemetary deep in a forest on the hillside.

10. The Workers Syndicate Hotel in Vatra Dornei, where we stayed, is highly recommended. It is bright orange and visible from all the surrounding hills.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Falling off the edge of the network

We're catching the night train from Bucharest to Bucovina today. Bucovina is in the north of Romania, where the Carpathians curve away into Ukraine. According to the guidebook the place is a "...magical realm teeming with legends, trolls, giant mushrooms and invisible spiders. Here there no internet be but bears do in abundance. Bring meat and a gun."

We are sadly unable to bring our dog with us, so we're leaving her at a care home for dogs here in Bucharest. The regime seems strict but the French owners assure us that the dog will be very disciplined when we return:

Back on the 26th, we hope.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd, the London seer, cockney rebel and analyst of cross-dressing trends, has a disturbing tendency to associate land with intention. In his novels and histories of London and England, he often refers to the land as 'working through' its people and usually in a less-than-nice way, as with the murderers of London for example: they didn't do it, the city did. All of this can suggest a highly-unpleasant 'blood and soil' brand of Fascism, lurking under the surface, especially when it comes for example to 'Albion', Ackroyd's "history" of England.

The real story is, I think, more subtle than that. Ackroyd is playing with notions of truth and make-believe. This dynamic motivates the cross-dresser as much as it does the novelist. His histories mix fact with suggestion in a way that is both compelling and repelling. Fictions are seductive, troublesome and dangerous, but there is no getting away from them. They are as much a part of human life as fact.

I think that Ackroyd is at his strongest when he makes the truth/invention dynamic most explicit in his work - when he shows his hand. It works best when he works with the father/son(daughter) structure. In both "English Music" and "The Fall of Troy" there is a major, dominating father-figure set against a naive, innocent child-figure.

The father-figure is not, as one might expect, the arbiter of truth and justice. Quite the opposite. These characters are fuelled by dangerous fantasies. Experience does not open their eyes to the truth - it only shows them how to exploit it for fantastical ends. 'Herr Oberman" (Uberman) in 'Troy' destroys genuine archaeological evidence in the service of his fantastical claims. Clement Harcombe in 'English Music' is a highly dubious "Medium and Healer".

In a neat act of subversion, Ackroyd deploys the children as the rational truth finders. In 'Troy', Sophia (a clear stand-in for a 'daughter' figure) can literally see right through Oberman's lies. Yet, being child-like, she remains in thrall with the daemonic father figure. Similarly, Tim Harcombe in 'English Music' tries to escape his father by slipping into artistic vision.

I believe that these oppressive, anti-rational father figures stand in for the 'land' in Ackroyd's histories. They are both everywhere and inescapable. We are fatally in thrall with them even while understanding the trick of it. And that is ultimately what any novelist would want.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

John Cheever's 'Reunion'

It's less than a thousand words long but it packs a wallop that resonates down through the years. It's one of the best shorts I have ever read. Actually, the first time I didn't read it. I heard it, as a New Yorker podcast. I thought it a little over-warmed that time - a whisky soaked relic from the fifties. I have since learned that listening is the poor relation of reading. Listening with pictures though, after first listening, then reading, is a heartening experience...

The story is a basic one. Charlie has a meeting with his father. The real entertainment comes from the behaviour and attitudes of the father. He seems hell bent on using irony and disdain to prove some far off distant point that no one can quite seem to grasp, least of all him. He shouts a lot, is sarcastic and boorish. In some ways he is hilarious company, in others, a monster. The behaviour might be the result of drunkeness, but it also seems more than that. There seems to be a keen misanthropy deep under the surface, yet there is also a sense of joy that the father has in getting 'a rise' out of people - almost as if he is trying to wake the sleeping world. I love this idea - a character trying to break some kind of social seal with wonder and hard irony: "I have a whistle that is audible only to the ears of old waiters".

The brilliance of the story is that none of these motivations and behaviours outweighs the others. The father is a perfectly balanced enigma - and so, naturally, is the son. Charlie is the counterpoint to this father in that he is quiet while the father is loud. But he is no less enigmatic for that. The story is framed by the key phrase 'The last time I saw my father...' but Charlie never says why. He doesn't comment on his father's behaviour at all - he merely describes it. The only active thing he does is state that he has to catch his train - but is this true or is he just trying to escape the situation? He doesn't say. It might even be that Charlie is the devil - making all this up about his father, or maybe even provoking the behaviour. It is all possible.

I was prompted into revisiting 'Reunion' after reading Brian Baise's "It's Nice When Someone Is Excited To Hear From You" in McSweeney's 29. That story also features a narrator who drinks and acts outrageously but not without reason. Again there is that sense of someone trying to break the bounds of society - trying to show the world something. There is little explanation of the motives, but a lot of description. It was only until I got to the end and read "...that was the last time I went to San Fransisco or saw my old friend Paul" that I suddenly realised this was all Cheever. The key idea was Cheever's - the POV had been switched to that of the perpetrator and the action was updated to San Francisco.

There's a rich seam here, and I'm starting to mine it.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Dial M For Monkey

I have often wondered where the connection lies between Flash and humor. Now I know. Adam Maxwell's 'Dial M For Monkey' is great fun, very English, wonderfully compact and deceptively simple. The writing never over-reaches itself but remains elegant, original and well-framed.

While the cover and the blurb gives the impression that Maxwell relies on shock-effect to get his ideas across, I don't believe that this is especially the case. His key thing is ideas. Each of these tales pivots on a single, powerfully imaginative idea. Reading the set, I consider Maxwell to be the kind of writer who constantly imagines the unusual behind the ordinary. The most congenial aspect of the book is the way that imagined explanations are used to impart a sense of wonder to the mundane. It is tempting to give examples, but that would ruin the book for the next reader, as these stories are almost entirely based on their core ideas. That's not to say, however, that the writing, phrasing and sentences are not fine in themselves. There's a lot of description here that leaps off the page with its originality and subtlety.

More than a few of the tales rely on first person narration, meta-comment and a kind of looping structure of the cliff hanger sort: 'Here I am in this weird situation, now how did I get here?' It's carried off so well, though, that it is a joy to read. It may even become something of a trademark. Hardly a dud in the pack - though one story did rely on a revelation that I have read elsewhere, in Ian McEwan's, 'The Child in Time', I think. That time it involved a strap repeatedly hitting the wall of a train carriage...

Witty. Stylish. Fine spun home humor of the top-drawer sort.

Sunday, 26 July 2009


I predict that flashfiction.net is going to be the biggest node in the flashwork before sundown. It's a new site set up and run by Randall Brown (that's 'the Guvner' to you) that deals with flash and nothing but. It takes every aspect of the game and gives it a good shake down: craft, people, writing - the lot. It's not an all-fluff and no-trousers thing. It's the business. I would go so far as to call it a serious educational resource, and I don't do that lightly. It's also a lot of fun and big on the participation side of things. But you know that already, I am sure.


I am pleased to see my short piece 'Selkie' up online at the summer issue of The Linnet's Wings. It's based on an old seafaring legend about women appearing in the form of seals. The notion supposedly goes back to a Pagan soup of ideas concerning what happens to the souls of the drowned. Everything, naturally, turns out for the worse in the end.

The Linnet's Wings makes a fine home for the piece, as the legend is alive and well in Ireland, where the pub is based. I am pleased, too, to discover that it's published with so many other good pieces by writers I am a fan of. There's too many of them to list here, but all of them worth a read.

'Selkie' is almost certainly the last piece to be published under my real name of 'O'Connor'. From here on in it's Dahai all the way.

Monday, 20 July 2009


Saturday, 18 July 2009


"Bad artists drink coffee. Great artists, tea"
Pablo Picassa.

I never understood that Picasso quote about stealing, and it always struck me as basically stupid, so I won't discuss it any more.

Plagiarism. It seems it has it's own day now. Yesterday, I think. Never mind, I'll just take today and copy it.

Will Self once advised temperance if and when other people steal your work. If you're any good, he said, you can write more while the thief probably can't. Which is fine, except Will Self said it, and he's like tin foil placed gently against a filling. I wish someone else had said it. Maybe they did. Maybe Will, in a gesture of supreme ironic idiocy, stole that line.

The thing that gets me about plagiarism is that it is sad. It's as sad as an attention seeking clown faking his own death then turning up at his own funeral, in full costume, and finding the place deserted. No clowns for miles. Then the he goes to a cafe and accidentally chokes on a spoon. That's what plagiarism means to me.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The trouble in my shorts

When does a Flash piece stop being that and become something else instead, a short story for example? This question has been bugging me for the last few days, mostly because I am trying to do with short stories what I did with Flash. In short - get a few pubbed, check the feedback, test the water. And the water, right now, is shallow and somewhat sticky. I am getting very nice feedback from editors - helpful, positive and so on, but it's just not there yet, not with the short story. So what's the difference?

Here's the answer that's playing me so far: Flash arrives uninvited, lounges around on the sofa of my subconscious, tells a few jokes and leaves. Short stories require afternoon tea, at the very least. They need some planning, some construction. That much is clear, but the deeper implication is more interesting: because of they way a Flash piece bubbles up, almost complete in itself, it is in essence, the piece that I wanted to write. I didn't plan it. It provoked itself. It wanted to be written.

Because a short story needs planning, on the other hand, then it is not automatically the story I wanted to write. I might think it is, but actually my planning is usually inflected by outside motivations: 'I want to get pubbed in X', 'I want to be a writer like Y', 'I want to write in this or that style' and so on. That's a problem because it's always going to lead to a story that seems forced somehow - and readers always notice. Unless I'm writing the thing I truly want to write, then it's never going to work.

An easy answer at once suggests itself: Take those Flash pieces and extend them into short stories. Since the Flash pieces turned up unannounced, they must be hinting at something. There must be something in there that wanted to be written. So why not just spin those out into shorts? Because a Flash is, by definition, complete in and of itself. It might be pushing me to think about some aspect that could feed into a short story, but it's not the story itself and it never will be. It's a Flash.

So now I am asking myself how I find out what stories are the kind I want to write. And I seem to be falling towards the idea of taking some intellectual or moral principal and posing it as a question. So, as a very broad and simple example, I might consider: "Love conquers all" - then pose it as a question: "Does love conquer all?" And suddenly I am beginning to see situations and embryonic characters. I am seeing conflicts and question. And therein lies the beginning of the stories that I want to write. All I need to do now, it seems, is find the right principles.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Carver's 'Vitamins'

This is a story of endless branching. Right from the opening line: 'I had a job and Patti didn't', Carver constantly divides (carves?) the action, taking the reader up to a point when things can go either way, then sending them down the path less taken, less anticipated. The effect is to always keep the reader on their toes. I found myself wondering where he was taking me throughout the read.

The payoff for this strategy absolutely has to be a killer last line - the kind of line that just nails it, leaves you stunned. And Carver certainly delivers in that respect. The entire mitotic structure ultimately underpins that one line, and that line gives purpose to the process. It's a thrilling experience to read and I can see how it has influenced the final lines of many flash pieces - the ones that reach for resonance, anyway.

Carver leans a lot on the Hemingway inheritance, but he pares it down even more, right to the bone. This approach makes the odd flourish light up like a firework. Take the double meaning and striking oddness of 'tended' in: 'Patti and I and somebody else lugged her out to the back porch and put her down in a cot and tended to forget about her.' In times of such scarcity, the universal duality is your friend. This happens a lot in flash pieces too - a seemingly simple declarative line that has a specific meaning in the context of the piece also takes on a universal quality when read as a statement in its own right. Carver does this a lot. One quick example: 'There was no end of girls.' It's not perfect though. I found one sentence (one!) that jarred for me, because it used that 'began' word which grates and grates like tinfoil against a filling: 'Donna and I began getting out of the booth'.

The vitamins of the title symbolize, for me, a false vitality - a consumerist product that attempts to package life and meaning all in one handy capsule. They paint the background for Carver. One of his characters, Patti, struggles to sell the pills door to door. Her exhaustion comes across with vivid clarity when she complains of lack of sleep due to dreaming about making sales. It comes as no surprise that she herself is using the product by the handful. The optimist in me wants to see the vitamin thing as at least offering the hope of a true vitality - even it is entirely corrupted, it seems to exist. Perhaps the religious minded might read something else into that.

The casual sexism of Carver always gets to me. Whether it is supposed to be simply a reflection of reality or not, reading him can sometimes feel like being trapped in a room with a particularly eloquent boor. In this tale we have the usual weak chase-skirting man, beaten down by life in capital letters, betraying his hard-struggling partner for no apparent reason - at least not any reason that is apparent to him. I cannot identify with this kind of character. All I can do is look down on them with a kind of squeamish pity while admiring the surface texture of the text.

The thing with the ear, though - now that's inspired.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

When to sub?

A lot of pubs ask, quite reasonably in my view, that writers only submit their best work, their most polished pieces, the top drawer stuff. Which is fine, but provokes the next question: how do I know what's best? - and the one after that - how do I know when it's finished?

Let's dispense with the first question quickly, because it is impossible to answer. Experience has taught me that I am the last one to ask when it comes to the question of what pieces work or don't. My opinion counts for little. I've had pieces lauded that I never gave much consideration too. I've touted faves for years with little success. There's stuff on my hard drive that I hug every morning, because that's the only home it has and will probably ever have.

How do I know when a piece is done? Well, this is how it usually goes for me:

I start with a prompt or an idea. Then I wait. I ponder it for a while, dispensing with obvious solutions, looking for a break. Sometimes that can take weeks, sometimes hours and - on rare occasions - minutes. But when the break comes, it's like a key unlocking a door. It grips me like a fever. I have to get it down. Out it all comes in a rush, unstoppable. I get the piece done within minutes - basically as fast as I can type. And, because of the way this happens, when I punch in the last full stop I can lean back, euphoric that it happened again.

Now is the danger time. First of all, I have to force myself to sit on the piece for at least a day. It's easier now, in the light of experience, than it used to be. No matter how big the rush of the initial write, I know that there's going to be at least one tweak. This is where a site like zoetrope.com comes in handy. I use it as a kind of holding bay. The pieces aggregate comments and I get a handle on what works and what stumps.

Even with that, though, there's all these judgement calls. When do I stick to my guns and go with what I feel is good, even if ten other people are calling me out on it (mental note: 'calling out' is a construction forever ruined by Palin et al.)? When am I over tweaking? Under tweaking? Am I tinkering away with this because I am afraid to send it out into the big bad world? Am I blinded by my own enthusiasm? So many questions.

So I wind up doing what I suspect everyone else does: muddling through. Pushing some pieces out, holding on to others - testing the waters. Seeing what works. And I get predictable results. I have one piece pubbed from the early days that was accepted long after I had revised the draft to something much better. I've had pubs tell me something is rushed or point out flaws that I should have seen. I've revised and revised drafts, only to return to the first one and realise it was the best after all. There is no end to it - no grand design. And that, as they say, is just that.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Why do anarchists drink herbal tea?

Because all proper tea is theft.

The Elimae Aesthetic

I have always been compelled by elimae. Like the quiet one at the party, it had its own presence. There's just something about it that I can't distill, try as I might. A verbal and visual aesthetic. Coop Renner, editor since 2004, talks about it like this:

'I find myself asking writers to get rid of merely functional writing: words and sentences which are primarily content and not 'music.'

'I don’t mind mystery; I don’t mind obliquity. I don’t want the obvious.' 'I sort of want the writing in elimae to work like a Zen koan.' 'Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: nobody looks at that to ‘learn’ about sunflowers. You look at it to admire the way he put the paint on the canvas.' 'I have a great fondness for the Victorians'

All of which points towards the extremities of the old chestnuts: 'show don't tell' and 'kill your darlings' (but make it beautiful to read). Except that thing about the Victorians. But then if you read carefully, there is a definite Victorian/Chekhovian vibe going on.

Bottom line - take it to the extreme. Cut away. Don't flag it up. Keep it subtle. And so on.

Which brings me to short shorts, and Eric Beeny's 'Two Fictions' is a masterpiece of the form. So much understated possibility in so few words. It's one to read over and over.

Friday, 26 June 2009

SmokeLong Quarterly

SmokeLong is the Viper Room of flash pubs. It's the velocity candy, the tote bag, the kind of place I cruised by in my second hand Smart, taking notes, watching and waiting. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, they send a car. Can I bring my dog?, I ask and they say sure, because they're cool about these kind of things. So me and my dog get to go to SmokeLong with a story in tow.

Roll the dice. Pass Go. Take two steps left. Go straight to Oz.

Delighted to be a part of it.

Am going to take the rest of the day off and spend it reading from cover to cover, walking around in circles and staring out of the window, stunned.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


I got two rejections today. The first one, a form rejection: 'Dear Writer...' Sent in roughly 24 hours, for three pieces subbed. Multiple subs allowed. Subbed 3, all different. Got back the response pronto. No, writer. No.

I read it, imploded quietly and stormed around. Perhaps I've been spoiled but I have not had a form rejection in ages. The ones I have had have all been personal and often very pleasant. Useful critiques, kind words and so on. So I reacted badly. After imploding, I regressed. Then I sat down, fuming, and searched for any dosh I could get on the editor of the fine pub that dared ... dared! Waaaah! ... to be so good as to read and reject me so quickly.

And I found the editor's blog. And it was all about their own rejections. How they tried and tried. Their dedication and so on. How badly they reacted to the form ones. Yes indeed, there was my own hubris and idiocy slowly draining away, like so much battery acid. It wasn't pretty, but it passed. I learned. Moved on. 'Dear Writer' grew up a bit.

The second rejection was even faster. The fastest I have had, in fact. Subbed in the morning, got rejected three hours later. But this one was personal and very, very helpful. The editor pointed out some spot-on problems with the piece and was very kind about the rest.

So, basically, next time I'll be more careful.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

One of those 'I knew I shouldn't have but then again I learned something' moments

No sooner do I make a ham-fisted stab at pinning down flash, when I discover Hobie Anthony's remarkable and incisive blog where he lays everything and more out on the dissecting table in perfect clarity.

Leap-frogging from there, I discover Stefanie Freele's Sisters, which is a complete revelation in how the story form can be re-invented in a micro. If you haven't read it, I recommend doing so, right now. It's very short.

The title keys the piece, which uses simply 'The younger' and 'The older' to switch between the reciprocal actions of two sisters. There's a kind of numeric structural underpinning that carries the story, something Freele makes more explicit with a line about the younger sipping 'her third.'

Freele, I think, makes a virtue of a limitation here - by squaring a story on its structural opposites. The two sisters are points A and B. The 'third' turns out to be the reader/writer, their engagement also made explicit in a powerful ending.

I think here, the usual conceptual resonance thing is neatly subverted by a structural resonance.

So, that just shows how long a way there is to go.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Definition of flash fiction

Don't do it! they say, but I can't stop asking. I'm certain that others have defined the form much better but this is where I got to so far:

I've been pondering this thing I call conceptual resonance. Simple example: Concept 1: frigidity. Concept 2: snow. Or: Concept 1: happiness. Concept 2: Sunshine. These concepts resonate on a very basic, almost vulgar level. Other concepts resonate on more complex, subtle, strange or crazy levels. Someone probably has an official name for it.

So, poetry is all about conceptual resonance. Story is irrelevant. In a poem you can just scrawl out your concepts any old way and hope they resonate in a pleasing way.

Flash is poetry + story. Conceptual resonance is still important, but you need a story too. You can't just waffle on about happiness and warmth. You need happy Carl to be trying to find a way to pay his heating bills. You need some story elements.

Short story up to novel also = conceptual resonance + story ... but ... the conceptual resonance is much diminished and story is much more important. Plot comes to dominate.

Why so? It's s a basic question of length. In very simple terms, because Flash is short (that's a given), all the concepts you deploy are going to bump up against each other. It can't be helped. Resonance becomes a vital factor to the reading experience. It's possible to write a Flash piece almost entirely as story but very boring, like this one:

Carl is cold. He has no money. So he decides to rob a bank. He succeeds! Now he has lots of money. No more problems with those heating bills.

As soon as you try filling in the details here - who Carl is, how it actually unfolds, you need to deploy concepts. They're the coloring in. The really good ones almost always, in my experience, run new and interesting concepts together that create resonance not seen before.

So, that's the definition. Flash is poetry + story balanced out in relatively equal importance. And where does that leave microfiction? Microfiction is just very short flash. A sub class.

I am sure that this is either really obvious, wrong, well-discussed or misuided. But it's what's rattling around the old head these days, and I have to get it down, pat, if only for my own benefit.

Friday, 19 June 2009


Everything has slowed down so completely that it is almost threatening to stop. The heat doesn't help. 32 degrees, blazing sun, air so dry that it could make a fortune on the comedy circuit. A small fortune.

Not much happening on zoetrope.com either. Three pieces up on the flash board. Nothing. Actually one of them got a review that said I had captured everything that was wrong with humanity in less than 650 words. It's an ambition, I suppose. I don't know if I am to be delighted at the compression or upset that I have no words to spare for everything that is right with humanity. Well, to be honest, I do know. I was delighted, of course. But that passed and then nothing else happened.

I reviewed more and more to fill the void. Began to appreciate stasis:

I notice that your character does absolutely nothing. She simply sits in a forest, looking at a deer. The deer does nothing either. Then it ends. I LOVE this! It's so TRUE!

and so on...

Part of the problem was me being spoiled. I got some acceptances recently of the high grade cocaine quality. And now of course, I want that buzz every day. But the buzz is a buzz because of its scarcity. So now I am sitting, the wind wafting my beard, hopeless and untroubled.

But of course, that's all nonesense. Petty whining. And Duotrope's Digest is the cure, the reminder that it's not about acceptances, feedback and love. It's about writing and writing and getting better. And that's all.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Small change

Where do you get your ideas, people ask and I say, I find them in the street, like money.

We went for a walk in the park, sat on a bench and watched the water glitter. There, under the bench, was an idea. I picked it up and slipped it in my bag. Another idea was left lying near the gate. I bent and grabbed, quickly, before anyone else noticed.

Later, in a coffeeshop, I found an idea just laying on the table next to the sugar. Maybe the people who had just left intended to leave it as a tip. Too late, it's mine now.

Then, an evening drink at a student cafe. Spontanous guitar sessions, hot orange juice and amaretto. And a wonderful, shiny idea, just sitting there, in the middle. I bent, grabbed and slipped. It was glued to the ground. Everyone laughed. I smiled, nodded and shrugged.

There is always tomorrow.

Minor Robberies

OK, so I've given this collection a Five Star rating without reading the short stories by Dave Eggers and Sarah Manguso. Sue me. - says one

Although I enjoyed all three, Deb Olin Unferth's Minor Robberies stands out in this group. It is delightfully humorous, adventurous, and with a touch of mystery at times. - another.

Amateur reviewers are a strange mad bunch, and yes I am aware of the irony, naturally. There is a sense of pride in their assertions of having only read Deb Olin Unferth's 'Minor Robberies' collection, or that they only bought the collection for these ones, or that they are only interested in etc... However you cut it, the consensus seems to be well within Olin's orbit.

A bizarre phenomenon. For me, Olin's stories are the Dustin Hoffman of the McSweeney's collection. Accomplished, certatinly. Talented - of course. But they are also mannered to the point of impossibility. And, like Hoffman, wear their technique on their sleeve to the detriment of the impact. They are good actors, but they insist on working that 'look at me, I can act' thing into the plumage. Perhaps reviewers, like magpies, pick up on the shiny things.

Personally, I preferred Manguso's deceptive simplicty - a vastly more difficult trick to achieve - and Egger's erratic slight of hand - even more so, still.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Four short things

Every writer's fantasy: You write something, put it out there, the world reads, is stunned and pounces. 'I want this' says the world and you shrug, because what else can you do, except give it up easy. That, or something similar, happened to me today. Then there was an electrical storm.

The more I read, the more I get hot wired. Snatches of other people's ideas and sentences leap into me like sparks from super-heated paper. I note them all down in my book of ideas. There's a queue, now, winding around the block. One of the first ideas in the queue is 'watchmen at the junkyard' - a snippet of a sentence, slightly modified into a possible title.

A writer friend of mine just published his second book of short stories. An extract on his publisher's site shows me that he's really come on. The extract concerned a story about his girlfriend who could have pretended to be a prostitute, but in the end made him rabbit, stewed in wine. I remember that rabbit. I ate it with him in his apartment a long time ago. He was very proud of it and it tasted delicious.

A Romanian from New York came to look at our apartment today. We didn't think she'd buy it. She was a nice lady. On her way out of the door, she pointed at the row of cameras that I have pinned on my wall. 'I have a camera just like one of those.' she said. 'A Hassleblad.', I thought. 'A Hassleblad', she said. 'That' s a nice camera.' I said, glad to have had the conversation for free.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Quick Reviews

My bought pile outpaces my read pile about a factor of about ten. It's a common thing. Easier to buy than to read. Lots of people form a 'to read' queue on the shelf, the bedside table or wherever. And then you end up reading in patches. Word grazing. So -

One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies.

That title is almost as long as some of the stories. These are a revelation to me. Flash as it should be done. Each one a whole, an aphorism entire unto itself, like a hedgehog.

How It Ended by Jay McInerney

You know how you walk into a room and Grandad starts up all his stories about drugs and girls and fast cars? This is exactly like that. The old man's tales are full of holes and rambling exposition, but he knows how to conjur up a world in a fireplace, that's for sure.

Party in the Blitz by Elias Canetti

Who would have guessed it? Bertrand Russell, while being spectacularly clever, looked exactly like a goat and acted like one too.

Emily Anderson: 'Love, The Frontier', in McSweeney's 25

The journal of a young woman looking for love in the wild west. Grand overture indeed, but I mention it mostly because of the clementines. 'Celementines' are women who live in a shed. The acquiesce in men's desires for a security trade-off. Some women do that. It's true. Switch on MTV and what do you see? Celementines.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Road to Guantanamo

An irresponsible film based on the testimony of the 'Tipton Three' - three English men, Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul - who were taken by the American army from Afghanistan to Guantanamo and held for three years. The individuals are real, and their testimony is a genuine account - but there's serious problems with the truth of their claims. And by 'serious problems' I mean 'vast gaping holes in a gossamer thin sheet of credibility'. By taking these men's account at face value, and presenting it without question, the film fails both as a fully rounded account and as well-meaning propoganda.

Here's the account. See how seriously you can take it:

One of the men goes to Pakistan, to meet his chosen bride and get married there. After a week, he decides he likes the girl and calls his friends who go to join him for the wedding. Because a hotel is too expensive, (presumably all their money spent on plane tickets and wedding presents etc...) they stay at a mosque where a radical preacher happens to turn up and urge the young men to go to Afghanistan and 'see what's happening' and 'help'. This is about a month after 9-11 and before the American invasion. The men decide to go and have a look in Afghanistan. They think that there's really 'big nan bread' there and this entices them. So (wedding now apparently forgotten, return tickets too...) they jump on a bus to the border, where all three just walk into the militarised country with no questions asked, by anyone.

As they drive on into the mountains, the bombing starts. They find it frightening, but keep going, because ... well, they don't say. They all agree, though, that the nan breads are worth the risk. One of them gets seriously ill, but they keep going, because ... well, they don't say. After hanging around for three weeks, two and half of them in Kabul, they decide they're bored with Afghanistan and want to go back to Pakistan, where, I presume, they'll beg for plane tickets back home.

But, wouldn't you know it, by the worst stroke of luck, they jump on the wrong bus. It doesn't take them to Pakistan, it takes them to one of the last major Taliban outposts in Afghanistan. No matter how much they plead with the bus driver, he just won't let them off the bus. So they end up in the compound surrounded by men with guns. Not knowing what else to do, they decide to stay. Then the Americans attack the compound and they find themselves arrested and taken to Guantanamo on suspicion of being fundamentalist fighters.

I think Occam's razor is well applied here. The simplest explanation for all of this confusion is that the men were delighted by what happened on 9-11, because of a deep-rooted fundamentalist conviction, one strong enough to make them want to go straight to Afghanistan and help the Taliban keep hold of power in the country. After they were caught, and rather than admit this, they came up with a bizarre account involving nan bread and caprice. I think too that this is clearly the single most likely explanation to arise in the mind of any thinking person. I'm not saying it's true - because I'm not placed to do that. I'm just saying it's very likely.

So - it's likely then that these guys are lying and that they're fundamentalists (In fact, one of them later admitted, under a polygraph test, that they'd spent some weeks at an al-qaeda training camp). What then are we to make of a movie based on their account, that does not question it and that shows no other opposing views? Well, it fails, clearly, as a well rounded account of an experience at Guantanamo. But it also fails as propaganda, because, since it is so clear that the account is flawed, then anything in the account concerning what happened at Guantanamo is also highly questionable. We end up with a film where nothing is credible.

Those on the American right are likely, in fact, to applaud it with the thought that, if this is the best lie that three fundamentalists can come up with on Gitmo, then it can be ignored. Fundamentalists are probably going to enjoy it - even, and probably especially, knowing that the surface account is laughable. Some English teens might like it - especially with those endless and somewhat xenophobic flashbacks of good-wholesome English kids enjoying pizza before they grow their hair long and accidentally wander into battle.

I would love to see a film about Guantanamo that really showed me, convincingly and passionately, all of the injustice, fear, disgrace and events that actually happened there. A film that shows both sides - why these things happened and to who. A film that says something about us, as humans, stuck in a dangerous world. But this is not it. This is just an insult to any intelligence, from earthworm up.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


The day before yesterday, about 7pm, the sky went dark. Not slowly, but suddenly, as if someone knocked a hole in it and drained all the battery fluid. The wind picked up and kept on picking up. Strange things banged and rattled. Lightning flashed at angles. Streets turned to rivers.

Yesterday, we went for a walk. A residential street in the center was closed from one end to the other. Two ancient and massive chestnut trees had come down into the road, bringing all the powerlines, cable connections and telephone wires with them. Their remains leaned against the houses opposite, poking through broken windows. Workers ambled about, as if in shock.

Today I read a fine story by Elias Canetti, about a remote Scottish laird and his wife, who imported her dresses from Paris - the latest fashions - but had no one to wear them for. So she kept them, wrapped and sealed in her wardrobe. The couple had some servants from Poland, but they laughed too loudly so the laird sacked them and went looking for quieter ones. He found one in a lighthouse in the remote north. The new man understood quiet, and could perceive the laird's needs before the laird could himself. But one day his wife discovered one of her dresses missing and went to look for the servant. She discovered him, in his room, wearing the dress and practicing ballet moves in front of a full length mirror.

Monday, 1 June 2009


Here's how a story got imagined, written and pubbed, from start to finish.

I was listening to early German synthesizer music on my iPod, weeks ago. Really listening. Paying attention to the sounds. They went 'Zzzing. Plish. Squalk. Plash. Smeeaow.' It was raining too. I was outside. I thought 'This music sounds like rain. It's the kind of thing I would have noticed when I was a kid. That's interesting.'

'That's interesting' is like a bell to me. It means a story is at the door.

So suddenly there's this story about this kid in the rain, telling his mother that it sounds like
'Zzzing. Plish. Squalk. Plash. Smeeaow.' How does the mother react? Kid's a bit weird - make her weird too. Family trait: overactive imagination. So now the kid's a synesthesiac and the mother's kind of worried about him but she's too wrapped up in her own world to really notice. Oh the ironies of fate and miscommunication. But most of all, I liked the idea of getting into the head of a weird kid. Because I was a weird kid and I want the world to know about it.

Maybe that's why, when I sat and wrote, the kid just came alive. He was bouncing around and being very kid-like. That saved a lot of time. He didn't turn into a cliche. That was good. The mother was more writerly - a kind of left-field quirk thing, but she fitted in nicely.

For some reason, every time I wrote the word 'synesthesia' this big gong went off in my mind, warning me that the word was crashing in like an elephant. So I chucked it in favor of others more oblique - 'that Nabokovian thing' - stuff like that. Result - hardly anyone who commented on the story got the synesthesia part. But that's good, too.

I put it up on a writers group at zoetrope.com. Lots of comments telling me the POV was shot to hell. I had to choose - mother or child. I went with mother. Polished for a few weeks. Sent it out. Got it pubbed (under the real 'fiction' name of 'O'Connor').

And, naturally, now I don't like it at all. All I see is faults. I see a rock to leap from onto the next rock. But that's how it goes. Writing buries its pallbearers.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Donald Barthelme

The Donald Barthelme retrospective in McSweeney's 24 is a valuable read. It's kind of cringy, as is the nature of these things, but for me it's also school. Stuck out here in the darklands, thousands of miles and even more dollars away from the nearest American MFA, I take me insights where I can get them. Not only did I get a clear view of Barthelme and his work, I got a lot of good writers talking about the process of learning and the things that they took away. My ideas book hasn't been so busy for some time.

Barthelme strikes me as very Beckett - kind of Beckett lite - Samuel cushioned from the cold glass screen by the air bag of irony. My problem with Beckett is the old Catholic thing. After years of the state religion, followed by a massive de-programming session in the form of philosophy courses, I find the old war with god a bore. That chestnut, 'where's the meaning?' can easily be answered by taking a good look at the qualities of any chestnut. But Barthelme's sentences are stunning and his jumpy laughter is infectious. I'm glad to see there's tons of it available online. It's kind of like discovering who Beethoven is, after all this time.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Rene Magritte's Snapshot Collection

Bucharest is a city in constant turmoil. The only certainty is that there will be nothing to do. Tia and I went to an exhibition of Rene Magritte's home snapshots today. It was pretty much as expected - Magritte and his mates larking about in a bunch of blurry snaps from the 1930s. The fact that some of the shots look like his later paintings, as in the one where he pretends to paint his wife, only added to the overwhelming sense of inevitable tedium.

On the plus side, the exhibition was just over the road from the 'Anthony Frost' English Language Bookshop, so I was able to rummage through their collection of McSweeneys and snaffle some graphs.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Frank Dahai

Frank Dahai is the pseudonym of Frank O'Connor, a writer. Not the Frank O'Connor, a Frank O'Connor. An inkling, if nothing else, of why it's now Dahai.