Recently - as you'll know if you had a look at my last post - I was asked to deliver a session to Heads of English about encouraging independence in A level students. We covered lots, but one short section of the session changed me more than I thought it might. It was about reading. It's tough to keep kids reading, especially between 16 and 20, and sometimes it can be the sheer length of a book, and the time-commitment it requires, that puts them (and us) off picking up. So I decided to assemble a killer list of super-short novels.
In the previous post, I covered 14 novellas you could read in a weekend. Here, I cover 14 short novels you could read in a week. The number of pages are in brackets. So here it is - part two:
Fourteen Very Short Novels you can Read in a Week
I am Legend – Richard Matheson (160)
Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino (165)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark (170)
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison (172)
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (175)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson (176)
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald (180)
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption – Stephen King (181)
Cannery Row - John Steinbeck (181)
A Pocketful of Rye – Agatha Christie (192)
The Woman in Black – Susan Hill (200)
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (205)
Lord of the Flies – William Golding (224)
The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger (240)
If you gave yourself a week each to reading four of these, over the course of a month you'll probably get something close to a life-changing experience. The world, I swear, will never be quite the same again. Your cultural capital will quadruple. Possibilities will open up. If you're stuck just choose - I dunno - Calvino, Jackson, Fitzgerald and Golding.
As an introduction to literature, its purpose and power, you could do much worse. If you've got a reluctant reader in your house, or a child embarking on a literature course, get a hold of some of these.
And join them on the journey.
Recently I was asked to deliver a session to Heads of English about encouraging independence in A level students. The session went well. I mean I enjoyed it, and that's got to be a sort-of good sign, right?
We covered lots, but one short section has changed me more than I thought it might. It was about reading. I've been thinking a lot about how hard it is to get post-16 students reading literature, particularly with the aggressive competition from visual media. (In a recent podcast interview, Linwood Barclay describes how he met a group of his fellow-writers at a convention and was horrified to realise, halfway through an enjoyable catch-up conversation, that they were all swapping and sharing TV and movie recommendations rather than books. And these are guys and gals who make their living writing and reading. So it's not just kids...)
Sometimes it can be the sheer length of a book, and the time-commitment it requires, that puts us off picking up. So I decided to assemble a killer list of super-short novels. Next time I'm asked at a school event how to encourage more reading, or a parent waits behind after a session to ask how they can get their kids into books again, I'll be using this list. Maybe it'll be helpful for you too. The number of pages are in brackets. Here's part one:
Fourteen Novellas you can Read in a Long Weekend
The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (35)
Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (44)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote (84)
Candide – Voltaire (84)
The Pearl – John Steinbeck (96)
The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros (103)
Animal Farm – George Orwell (112)
A Room with a View – EM Forster (119)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carrol (126)
The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemmingway (127)
The Invisible Man – HG Wells (129)
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James (131)
Orlando – Virginia Woolf (134)
The Call of the Wild – Jack London (144)
In the spirit of thorough and professional presentation - that's me all over, folks - I decided to read four from the list before I ran the session. It took me two days of casual, no-pressure on-and-off reading to get them done. I read The Yellow Wallpaper (a novella about the very act of reading and making meaning so it's peak-appropriate for this list...) The Pearl (a re-read, but I'd very little recollection of it), The House on Mango Street (my first time with this. Mood-and-mind-alteringly good; stunning coming-of-age stories) and The Old Man and the Sea ( a re-read.)
It was a wonderful experience. The vivid prose read quickly and easily. The themes were sharp and clear. The characters, voices and worlds rich and varied. As an introduction to literature, its purpose and power, you could do much worse. Part two of the list to come next time. If you've got a reluctant reader in your house, or a child embarking on a literature course, get a hold of some of these.
You could even read along yourself.
<insert 2021-specific intro. re. dreadful state of the world but tantalising possibilities ahead note: work on the tone griffin, you're *always* misjudging>
So with that said, let's get down to business. I'm writing two books. Two very different books. Three, actually, if you include a non-fiction project. But there's not much I can usefully say about any of them at the present moment so let's instead cast our eyes across the bin-fire of the now and see whether we might pick our way through the ashes in a pair of sturdy boots and find something good to get excited about. (I once melted the soles of a pair of boots real good by walking across the smouldering embers of a recently dead fire, btw.)
Watching: To the Lake - a terrific Russian pandemic drama that follows a dysfunctional group of survivors as they flee Moscow. There's a lot of drone shots following cars down the snowy arteries of Siberian roads. There are a lot of trees shot from disorientating angles. But best of all is the take on collective decision-making. Where Hollywood would have a lantern-jawed alpha male emerge to take charge, the Russian equivalent is to cast a lead actor that looks like Lee Mack then have everyone scream at each other, get drunk and try to storm off into thigh-deep snow, which is harder than it looks.
Reading: The Hunted - and it's been a super-enjoyable slice of muscular rural noir. It involves meat-headed outbackers who, furious at being outsmarted and betrayed, send a tooled-up posse to dole out their unique brand of local justice. And our protags get mixed up right in the middle of it. We spend most of the novel enjoying a series of thrilling sieges. There's a lot of gun-fire and sarcasm. Very cool.
Playing: Bullet Echo - fashionably late to the battle royale party, I'm spending too long each day hunched over an iphone and cack-handedly attempting to gun down tiny figures seen only from above while the circle of death closes inevitably in.
And that's about it, except to say the new Foo Fighters album is - despite this review - really very terrible and that I'm so sick of aimlessly walking the streets and attending Zoom meetings that
<insert suitably profound final sentence here think, man, think>
Tony Ballantyne's new collection has been called "superb" by The Guardian - and with good reason. I was lucky enough to sit down with the man himself and discuss Midway. To read the wonderful and poignant title story, check out Lightspeed, the acclaimed US sci-fi fiction mag, where it was first published. The collection as a whole is ambitious, moving and sharp. I loved it. So here we go...
Let's talk about buildings in transition. You and I both live in places where huge textile mills along river valleys and in city centres have been left empty and then re-colonised. Sometimes it's for housing but you seem more interested in the niche business concerns that spring up. Cafes, bakeries, potteries, life coaches... you seem drawn to the curious characters that populate these spaces. Was that sense of being in transition - a building midway between one version of itself and another - something that inspired you?
Yes, definitely. Go to most cities in England and you'll find that buildings have been repurposed. Our industrial past has been sanitised and romanticised, the structures have been borrowed to lend a veneer of authenticity (Why have butchers started wearing flat caps, by the way?)
I'm also fascinated by the way that people fill in forgotten spaces. You see it in school playgrounds: children have a way of finding forgotten corners to meet with their friends. We're seeing something similar in large shopping centres at the moment. Chain business are moving out and pop up shops and art galleries are moving in. These buildings were created for commerce and industry, and now the creatives are moving in.
Speaking of creatives, in Midway, the creative process is ever-present. It seems to me you're exploring dedication to the creative process... I get the sense that, in these stories, some characters create with dedication and others don't - I'm thinking of the artists who are criticised in The Cold Equations, or the food blogger whose projects fizzles out. Can you tell us more about your thinking here?
Don't get me started...
I'm of the opinion that creativity is often used as an excuse, particularly by those beginning to work in a field. In the classroom as well as online I've often people advising beginners to listen to their heart, to let their imaginations run free. Bollocks. I'm firmly of the opinion that creativity is something that emerges a long way down the line.
Learn the basics. Practice your craft, look at what others have done and build on it. Do that for long enough and, when you're good enough, then the creativity will emerge quite naturally. There are no short cuts. There are naturally talented people. But talent is not enough. It's a short cut, it's start, it makes things easier, but you still have to put the work on. Everyone has to put the work in.
The idea of being trapped comes up a lot because of your personal circumstances as your father's health worsened - a limbo between two states or spaces (in Return to Dream London or A Pigeon in the Arndale Centre) or being trapped by illness (Light on Her Feet.) The image of a pigeon in a shopping centre is one I've found myself thinking about a lot...
Not exactly trapped, more railroaded. As my father was dying I could see how his choices were slowly being taken away. Where he could live, what he could eat. It wasn't that he had no choices, in fact one thing that really stuck with me was a notice in a care home reminding staff that residents should be allowed to make decisions, even if they made bad choices. That's really quite an enlightened statement to make.
That's why I liked the image of the pigeon. It's free to fly, it doesn't realise that it's trapped, it's following the same path over and over again.
Reading Midway I was reminded of a lyric from a Loudon Wainwright song; "I'm a son and I'm a father / I am just a middle-man." I suppose you're a middle-man in this collection (you appear a lot, in conversation with your grandmother.) But the addition of grandmother who defies time and appears spirit-like, makes your dad a middle-man too. 'Grandma' is the glue that holds the stories together. Did she arrive later in the project, or was she central from the beginning?
I feel like a middle man in every sense at the moment! Middle aged, part of the sandwich generation. I don't think that's a bad thing, far from it. I think it's a good place to stand and take a look around from.
Grandma was the seed around which the project crystalised. I actually was walking past her old house when I imagined calling in to say hello. That was the moment when Midway stopped being a random collection of stories and became a coherent whole. I was drawn to the idea that the stories took place midway between her past and the SF future of the final tale.
Once she was there I found myself wondering what she would think about the stories I was writing, I imagined her reading them and her reaction to them. She was a useful foil - she stopped the writing becoming a collection of 'poor me' stories. She really would have told me to stop complaining about things and just get on with life.
The act of returning home - or trying to return home - is important throughout but especially in the superb title story. In earlier sections of the collection you've returned to your family home in the north east, staying in your childhood bedroom, and you see the place through the eyes of an adult. Buildings that once seemed mysterious now make sense. You're much more politically aware. And angry!
Oh yes, but I try not to be.
I've always distrusted political writing. Too much talking and not enough doing. I'm not saying that writers don't make a difference. Actually, I am. If you want to change the world, become a teacher. Or a nurse or a care home worker.
A lot of your characters are on journeys - you included. Sometimes from place to place (or planet to planet)... but sometimes from state to state or time to time. I suppose writing autobiographically is like time-travel. Was this something you considered as you worked, or did it emerge?
I think all writing is about a journey - but yes, I think a lot of my writing is about potential for change. I wrote the Penrose series (about a planet of robots) because I was fascinated by the idea of two robot parents making a child (this was the opening scene of the book). Just imagine you could choose your child's character. Would you make them kind and generous but worry about them being taken advantage of, or would you make them self-centred and driven to succeed? We don't get to make those those choices as humans.
We're born... then we have to work with what we have.
Midway is out now and garnering stellar reviews.
If you've just landed, the thirty posts below - one for each day of September - are this year's September Shorts 2020, my micro-blogging project.
You can read them all (they're quick!) by starting here and working your way forwards. You'll get gaming, movies, remote islands, writing experiments, Daphne Du Maurier and complaints about Morrissey, 80s horror geek-outs, Quentin Tarantino and an argument for remaking The Princess Bride among many others.
Or... you can jump in and read the guest posts, kindly submitted by writer pals. Follow the links for contributions from:
I'll take a well-earned blogging break for a while now. I'll drop by in November or December to say hello. Be good. :-)