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. :-)
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is ubiquitously discussed and endlessly referenced in seminars, motivational talks or books urging the importance of deferred gratification.
Two problems with the experiment, as far as I can see, aren't ever mentioned in the literature. Here they are.
1. In order to wait for the second marshmallow, you have to believe the researcher will come back.
If all you've had in life up to that point is concrete evidence that grown-ups let you down, you're gonna eat that first marshmallow as quick as damn possible. This doesn't demonstrate a lack of grit or persistence. It's a pragmatic decision to take whatever you can get borne of hard-earned life experience. This applies to other things too...
2. Marshmallows? Really?
I risk sounding facetious so let me get to the point: shallow marshmallowy rewards don't adequately replicate anything in real life. We don't work to get metaphorical marshmallows. Study after study shows that if our work is cognitively demanding, increased financial rewards for successful completion negatively impact performance. The world isn't set up to give marshmallows to persistent people.
Like I said on this day last year; the reward for hard work in real life? It's not marshmallows. It's more hard work. But it's the work that matters. That's what we're here for. It's up to us to just. Keep. Going.
p.s. Last word this year goes to Steve Pressfield. This is from his seminal Turning Pro:
As part of this year's September Shorts I've asked writer friends to contribute posts inspired by the title One Cool Thing. They'll be telling you about one cool thing they're looking forward to as Autumn approaches. It might be a book or movie, a tabletop or computer game, an event or visit to a special place, a chance to achieve something... or perhaps even an exciting new project.
Today is the turn of Jon Mayhew, the brains behind the break-neck, action-packed Monster Odyssey series and The Mortlock series of MG gothic chillers, as well as a proliferation of projects under other names, the latest of which are his detective novels featuring DCI Will Blake. You can check out Jon's website here.
Jon Mayhew: Plottr
Authors, we’re told, are divided into plotters and pantsers. There are those who map everything out in meticulous detail, from the characters' backstories through to the weather when any event is happening. On the other hand, there are writers who fly by the seat of their pants, seeing what happens next, enjoying the ride as much as they hope the reader will.
I’m sure there are those who work at either end of this spectrum but I suspect that the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. We might have a rough outline of the plot and characters but then we start to write and things change, the story develops and surprises us. I like to write fast, so plotting is important for me but I certainly veer away from my plan every time I write.
So when I saw Plottr, I thought I had to try it.
Plottr is a piece of software that helps you outline your story. It looks rather like a flow diagram, with chapter headings at the top and then different coloured plotlines below. You write your main plot points in boxes along the timeline. Each box can be expanded to accommodate more detail. You can use the headings in those boxes to assemble a rough synopsis of sorts. You can build character notes and a book bible to help you refer back to characters’ details such as eye colour or habits they might have.
I’m probably not doing it justice, here so go and have a peek for yourself. I’m looking forward to trying it out!
Dirty Projectors are an art-rock band from Brooklyn. In 2017 they decided to record Rise Above, a album that covered all the songs from Damaged, the 1981 debut album by hardcore punk-icons Black Flag.
Except here's the thing: although they were familiar with Black Flag's album, they decided to record their version without re-listening the source material. Instead, their album would be based only on their memories of the original. They'd filter Damaged through a sieve of time, recollection and perspective, and then they'd use the instruments they had at hand to recreate what they could of it. What came out was a ghost of Black Flag's original: stripped back, fuzzily-remembered elements reborn in a more acoustic context. It's a neat idea explored in this Indyweek article.
It got me thinking about writing equivalents. What if one tried rewriting a poem from memory? A short story from memory? Could the experiment create something of legitimate value? Hmmm. Not likely, but it's a prospect that led me to another thought experiment: what if one tried writing a story using the hazily-understood narrative framework of another tale? It would have to be a story-shape that was incompletely perceived, filtered through one's own perspective. It'd be - ahem - Damaged.
Then I figured out how it could be made to work. You could choose the soundtrack to a film or TV show that you hadn't seen and, using the aural cues and track titles only, build and write a story that matched the shape as well as the colour, texture and tone of the music you were listening to. You might hear threat, suspicion, conflict, retribution or triumph. You could build something new.
I've chosen a composer and a soundtrack and I'm listening now as I write.
I know nothing about the show (movie? TV drama?) and I won't be sticking it into a search engine and corrupting my perception, so no hyperlinks folks. It's called Nox. It might be notoriously bad, renowned in some way beyond my ken... I just don't know. It's French, so the track titles don't help much (with a few brave exceptions - 'Morgue' for example, 'La sextape de Julie' or 'Face a face: Catherine vs Nox.') I have mood and tone (this is the music for a psychological thriller, surely) I have character names and I have disturbing-looking scenes accompanied by dissonant piano and strings.
What I don't yet have is Julie's sex-tape scene sorted out...