Welcome to another five days of guest blogging. Ahhh blogging, that fantastic digital mash-up of random thoughts, half-baked product placement, free stuff and alcohol-induced slander.
Actually, don't expect too much in terms of alcohol-induced slander this week. I'm kinda new to writing so I don't really know very many slanderous things yet. Well, I do, but not about famous people, only about people I know and you probably don't, so there wouldn't be too much fun in that. Unless you want me to spill some stuff about my mate Colin. That might be funny.
My name is Steven Hall and my first novel, The Raw Shark Texts, was published in the UK a couple of weeks ago and will be arriving on American shores any time now. It's been getting the UK critics all loud and vocal in various ways which is all good and exciting. If you want to, you can find out more about me, the book, the reviews, the feature film, the Tilda Swinton minifilm and everything else on my myspace here (www.myspace.com/stevenhallbooks).
So, what's on my mind at the moment? Well, to be honest, I'm mainly thinking about not drinking beer.
I did my first big solo reading last Thursday, in Glasgow, Scotland. It went pretty well, I think. A decent group of people and some good questions afterwards. When the event was over we hopped on the train to Edinburgh to meet my editor Francis Bickmore, the brilliant Dan Rhodes (www.danrhodes.co.uk) and some other folks from my UK publishers. It was a long and boozy night. I finally got to bed about 6am, had about 4 hours sleep and then got up again to go out to sign copies of my book in local bookshops. I can't decide if this is the uber cool and Rock and Roll lifestyle or just a good way to feel like death for two or three days (my hangovers last for 3 days now, I'm getting old!).
My next reading is in Manchester on Thursday. It's my hometown and hopefully a lot of old friends will be dropping by to check it out. Which is good for the event and the book. Maybe not so good for my plans of moderation. I'll keep you posted on how my willpower holds up.
Beer. it always seems like such a good idea at the time, doesn't it? What's worse is beer seems like an even better idea after you've had some beer. I'm going to start working on listening to that little guy in my head who says 'come on buddy, time to go back to the hotel' instead of viciously drowning him. Yeah, the little guy might be painfully boring (I always imagine him in round glasses and a bowtie) but he's only trying to help. He deserves better.
Anyway, enough about booze. I think tomorrow I'll post up some Q&As for anyone who wants to know more about me and my work. If there's anything you'd like me to talk about/answer, attach a comment and I'll do my best. In the meantime, here's an unpublished short story (see, I said there'd be free stuff!).
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When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest writer in the Empire and His Majesty's chief poet, journalist and war correspondent.
In real terms this meant I grew up without my father around, although as I remember it, he always seemed strangely present. Throughout his many absences, my father managed to endure as an active part of my life ? his picture in the presses, his thoughts in the broadsheet black ink that rubbed off on my fingers (my mother would point out his name and help me say the letters), and his disembodied voice talking inside our radio.
To a child of perhaps four or five, it seemed as if my father only ever left home by degrees. My father's name, his voice, his picture were always there for me, always remaining to watch over my mother and I, to keep us safe in his body's absence. Even now, almost a century later, my father returns, although far less frequently. His voice comes back to me over still pictures in television documentaries about the old wars. Vintage sound recording, original tape says the caption, and then he's in the room, reporting through hiss and static, my father still.
Now. If my father was dismantled, then I suppose it would be fair to say that my mother was slowly dispersing. It never occurred to me as strange that she should spend all her days in bed, not until years later. I just assumed that this was how things should be, and in truth, I liked it. The mornings and evenings of my very early life would be spent upstairs with her in our country home, talking and listening to her read. She was a beautiful woman, quite pale and delicate, with the kind of fine blonde hair that lights up inside in the sunlight.
Even as an adult I've never been able to equate the knowledge of what was actually happening to her; that her illness was growing more severe, with how I actually remember the changes she underwent. She simply became softer, paler, lighter; more other somehow, more somewhere else. These changes were never abrupt, they occurred slowly but steadily, as if these things were entirely natural. As far as I can remember, there were no bad days, no coughing fits, no unpleasant deterioration. Simply the impression of her becoming less of one thing and more of something else.
She spoke quietly, and with her reading to me every day in that gentle voice we'd soon exhausted all the children's books in the house. Before long, I was a child of Greek tragedies, Darwinian struggles and of bright, burning tygers. She read out the words of the great thinkers and artists from all across history, and as she did, she read them into me. All the stories, events and thoughts became a part of me then, bound somehow by the quality of her voice and an uncomplicated love which illuminated and defined those times.
I remember two seasons from this early part of my life, a summer and a winter, although of course there must have been autumn in-between.
The summer was a special one because my father made one of his rare visits home.
I remember how the physicality of my father seemed magical to me. I'd become used to him as a picture, a voice, as the smell of clothes in a wardrobe ? a hundred single-sensory angles. But now, it was as if some force had called him together, as if for the shortest of times these fragmented elements had condensed to make a man, and that man could suddenly exert his physical will upon the world. The simplest of things, that my father could respond to spoken words, could move physically from one part of the house or garden to the other, could cut back the roses, could be touched and felt and had a real hand that could hold mine, these things were miracles, magic, amazing events that left me full of wonder.
I have one very clear recollection of a particular exchange between my father and myself. Or at least, I imagine that I have. More probably this is actually a memory of a memory of a memory, a stylised print, another one of those Chinese whisper tricks in the necessarily dark parts of the mind. Still, the basis is fact, I'm confident of that much, although I suppose it must be coloured by what happened afterwards and since. When we look closely, very, very closely, at such things, what can we really trust? Ultimately, the validity of all this is no longer for me to decide.
The memory I am referring to begins with roses in a basket.
"Why are you doing that?"
My father stopped and turned to me with a rose stem in one hand and some bright metal tool in the other.
"So we can take them inside to your mother. She loves roses."
"She likes the red ones best."
"That's right," My father clipped a stem. "She does."
"But. They'll die now they've been chopped off."
I must have looked very serious as I said this because I remember the look of concern on my fathers face. He placed the newly cut rose into the basket and knelt down in front of me.
"But if they weren't chopped off, how could Mother ever see them?"
"She could imagine them," I said. "Or look at them in books."
My father looked at me with a seriousness to match my own.
"She could," he said, "but would that be the same thing?"
I thought about this. "No."
"That's right," he said. "The roses are bright. They're beautiful, and they're quick. They just come and then they're just gone." He held up an empty hand as a sign of simplicity. "Those justs are important."
We took the roses inside.
My next memory is of the following winter. Being led into my mother's bedroom to see her body. To say my last goodbyes.
Snow had piled high on the window ledge and a blizzard was blowing hard outside. My mother's head seemed so light on her pillow; she seemed almost not to be there at all.
I walked slowly to her bedside, unafraid and undisturbed. There was no sudden pain of separation. Like my father, though in a different sense, my mother had also been leaving by degrees.
I remember feeling then that it was not as if her life had ended, rather that she had just arrived at the natural conclusion of some motherly process. Since the beginning of time her voice had been growing steadily quieter and her movements more slow. In the last few weeks she had read to me in a barely audible whisper, and in the last few days she read in silence, her mouth forming words I was unable to hear. She had moved less and less until her movements were imperceptible, until, finally, there were none at all.
One thing becoming another. This is how it had always been and the end, for me, was no more complicated.
I noticed her big book of plants and animals sitting heavy on the bedside table. We had read this book together many times and the hundreds of descriptions and colour plates were very familiar to me. Climbing onto the bed next to her, I took hold of the book, lifted it and I opened it.
It opened, fell open, and there, between two pages of text, was something I couldn't remember having ever seen before. A rose. A real rose pressed completely flat, flat almost to transparency. A rose ? two dimensional but perfectly preserved. I put down a hesitant finger and found I could move it. Carefully and eventually, I slid it loose of the lines of type and held it for minutes, sitting there, just holding it in my hand.