Thus begins Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Tomorrow. A single sentence that said so much to me. At once a knowing nod, a jibe, an amusing paradox of sorts. Because I am putting off my novel – if not starting it, at least from tackling it in earnest – and for the same reasons as the protagonist of Tomorrow: I want it to be a novel about everything. It’s unwieldy, it grows in all directions whenever I spend time with it, try to pin it down.
It is the promise of a novel to beat all other novels – ‘chasing a mirage’ – that keeps the protagonist (and me) producing, exploring; and yet it is also what keeps us dissatisfied. The feeling is one.
Sometimes I wonder whether it will always be the case that I will have ‘the novel’ looming over me, the MacGuffin that keeps me moving, but that the real body of work is what happens incidentally in the peripheries. The preparation, the experimentation, the spin-offs and the alternate takes. Often the most interesting things happen by accident or on whims, so doing something wonderful on purpose can seem like a futile pursuit.
One of my major interests is inner worlds: the subjective experience of being human. Perhaps, then, it goes without saying that I love to write the self, and I love to read the personal accounts of others. So I’ve been thinking about the different ways we choose to do this, and in particular the various methods available for presenting it. Here I share some distinctions I’ve made along the way.
Autobiography is the most ‘objective’ method for writing the self, with the aim of presenting events as they really happened. It will usually (but not always) be in chronological order and span most of a lifetime.
Memoir is a collection of memories from a specific aspect or time period of the author’s life. It is usually presented in an entertaining way, with some distance between the narrator and the subject, some hindsight, but also some intimacy of emotional context.
An Autobiographical Novel is the semi-fictionalisation of real events. It puts more distance between the narrator and the subject, and allows the use of plot devices, imagined events or characters, and heightened drama. There is an expectation that the author will do this not in an attempt to mislead, but to make the text more attractive to readers. Like memoir, autobiographical novels will usually cover a specific aspect or time period in the author’s life.
I knew this book would be for me as soon as I read the description: an experimental, poetic, flow-of-consciousness exploration of reality, fantasy and all the spaces in between. Yes please!
This is the kind of book you bring yourself to, in that you’re never 100% sure whether your experience is what the writer intended or whether you pasted your own meaning over the top of their words. There’s enough continuity, enough thread to hang onto, to make the text flow through an arc, but it also leaves a lot to interpretation.
I read this as the narrator delving into and confronting his own psyche. Perhaps it comes from knowing this was written during the first pandemic wave, when many felt isolated and helpless, but I see someone grasping desperately at straws to find meaning; someone left alone with his thoughts and falling deeper into their clutches. He picks at scabs, seeks out dark corners, obsesses over repeating motifs and patterns, and he digs.
Michael Walters is author of The Complex, an unsettling novel about the human psyche and its relationship with strangers and virtual reality. I caught up with him to chat about isolation, Carl Jung, and the importance of subtext in creating atmosphere.
Hi Michael, welcome to Writers on Lockdown! So, how are you faring in these strange times? Do you find isolation a help or a hindrance to your writing?
I’m faring well, thank you. I’m very lucky — I have a job that I can do from home, the kids are safe, and our parents are healthy. Being at home all the time with a full-house is challenging sometimes, but some people are going through hell at the moment, so I’m not complaining.
The lockdown is definitely not isolation for me. I like being alone. Being alone is the only way I can let my mind wander. I’m an introvert, so when I have to turn on the extrovert afterburner, I do need to recover. That’s really hard at the moment.
Are you finding the opportunity to work on anything new?
I wrote a short story in January and February which I hope will get published later this year. After finishing that, I wanted to get into my next novel, then coronavirus hit. I’ve been able to flesh out some ideas — I have a map of the location in my head, some characters, a few possible scenes, a title — but I haven’t started the first draft. The momentum is building. I hope I can finish a draft by the autumn. That might be hopelessly optimistic!
I wanted to talk a little about your recent novel, The Complex, which explores the psychological effects of unfamiliar spaces, both virtual and real. Can you tell us about the premise and how you came to write on this theme?
Jonathan D Clark is author of philosophical novel Arcadia, and his short story The Video was published in our recent anthology, Vast. As part of our Writers on Lockdown series, he joined me to discuss isolation, paranoia, and the dark side of our relationship with technology.
Hi Jonathan, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!
Thanks for having me as part of this series. It’s a pleasure.
How are you surviving in these crazy times, do you find isolation is a help or a hindrance to your writing process?
I’ve always been a rather reclusive individual (going to and from my day jobs throughout the years without speaking to anyone), so besides the limitations on what there is to do around town—and having to snipe for groceries—not a whole lot has changed for me due to the lockdown. Although, it did give me the chance to tell my more extroverted friends “welcome to my domain.” And as for productivity, it did witness a spike in the first week, but it has since slowed back down to its original pace.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
For the past year I’ve been working on my next novel, along with the occasional short story here and there when I feel I need a break from the grand narrative.
Canyou tell us anything about the new novel at this stage, or is it top secret?
Unlike Arcadia, my current WIP (titled False Cathedrals) will have a more contemporary setting; taking place in 2012 in the fictional town of Midtown, Vermont—as well as a few chapters taking place in the mid-to-late 90s. At the heart of the novel is Daniel Bloom, a middle-aged psychotherapist who can’t seem to escape the haunting memory of his first wife, Karen; even after fourteen years have passed since her untimely demise at the hands of a crazed shooter, now dormant. Hoping to distract himself, Daniel puts all his focus into helping a patient find lucidity after well over a decade of uncertainty. But it doesn’t help when he hears that the shooter has started a new, violent rampage.
Chris Beckett is an Arthur C Clarke award winning science fiction author. He’s published six (soon to be seven) novels and dozens of short stories, often focusing on ‘inner’ as opposed to ‘outer’ space. I caught up with him to chat about isolation, metaphysics, and tribalism in modern society.
Hi Chris, welcome to Writers on Lockdown! So, how are you faring in these strange times? Is isolation a help or a hindrance to your writing process?
I’ve been having difficulty moving my writing forward this last couple of months, but this often happens – I simply dry up and can’t seem to write anything – and it may have nothing to do with the lockdown. However I do think my ability to concentrate (never brilliant to be honest) is worse than usual.
When the real world is stranger and more engrossing than usual – and I am finding it engrossing – it is perhaps harder to focus on imagined worlds?
In my life generally, I’d say I am finding the lockdown more interesting than distressing. I’m used to spending a lot of time by myself at home, and in some ways the lockdown is providing a stimulus for me to find ways of keeping more in touch with some people than I usually would, which is nice.
I have a little granddaughter – she is 13 months old – and I’m very sad not to be able to spend time with her, as the plan had been (until this happened) that I would be looking after her for one day a week.
I’ve heard from several writers that their creativity is at a low point. I wonder if being engrossed in new situations is all part of ‘refilling the well’ of inspiration. Do you think we’ll see a different kind of fiction emerge on the other side of this?
I think that’s exactly right about ‘refilling the well’. We have to stock up on life in order to have anything to write about. And none of us have had many experiences which are completely comparable to this one. (In fact a lot of writers have had pretty quiet lives generally, I suspect). I’m sure new kinds of fiction will come out of this, but I really don’t know what. This virus has changed life for everyone, but in so many different ways.
I wanted to talk in particular about your recent novel, Beneath the World, a Sea, which is full of strong, surreal imagery, questions of the unconscious and philosophy of mind. When so many science fiction writers are focused on future technology, what made you turn inwards and address the nature of consciousness?
Ellinor Kall is an explorer of the liminal, embodying the blend between fiction and non-fiction. The popularity of her short story The DreamCube Thread in our recent anthology sparked this conversation on isolation, automatic writing, and occult influences.
Hi Ellinor, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!
Thanks, it’s my pleasure!
So how are things over in Sweden, are you feeling as ‘locked down’ as us?
From what I gather you in the UK seem to have a stricter policy than us. There are restrictions on how many can gather in one place, on visiting the older and vulnerable groups and things like that. Many work from home if possible, but many people are still out and about.
Every spring Swedes go crazy when the sun returns after a long dark winter and people HAVE to gather at the temporary outdoor seatings that pop up outside the pubs – no virus can stop this annual sun-worshipping ritual. Maybe it’s a remnant of some stupid viking mentality: if we die in battle with the virus we’ll get to sit and drink beer in the sun on plastic chairs outside Valhalla.
Haha! Do you find isolation a help or a hindrance to your creative process?
I’m a rather introverted person, and before this I was already working from home at least one day a week. And when not working, well, I’m mostly staying at home, reading, writing, listening to music, watching films and playing games. So this “isolation” is normal for me.
When I’m working on something longer I need time, preferably over several days, to get into the right mindset, get into the world, arrange all the pieces before I continue writing. Any disturbance from the outside world and I have to start over again. My mind is kinda chaotic and wants to go off and do other things all the time. So I have to spend a lot of energy keeping focus until I get into flow. But once that happens it’s hyperfocus to the point I forget to eat.
Today sees the release of our very first anthology. It’s been a lot of work, but we are so proud of the final result. Vast: Stories of Mind, Soul and Consciousness in a Technological Age features exciting and thought-provoking contributions from ten fantastic authors.
Chimy and Chrisby Stephen Oram
Chris is a scientist. Chimy is a brain, artificially grown in a vat and developing quietly in the dark… ‘I feel the pipe against my surface and see her push it inside me. “Chimy, speak,” she says. I do not know how to speak. What does she mean? How do I speak?’
Little Thief by J.R. Staples-Ager
Thief has undergone surgery at the hands of Genesyx Corporation in order to become ‘ported’ and donate unused brain capacity to the country’s data processing power. What side effects could this possibly have?
Limited Infinity by Thomas Cline
Hess has lived in a reality simulation for many years by law, along with everyone else. But one day, suddenly, there is no one else. They just – vanish. Can he, and the voice in his head, find out what happened?
Dreamtime by Vaughan Stanger
Jerome is in pain. He can’t sleep and is in desperate need of palliative cancer treatment, but now that AI has supplanted every government, he must make a trade to get it. And there’s something he has that the Partners want more than anything else…
The Weight of your Mind by Sergio Palumbo
Brett is a scientist, working on a theory that thoughts produce gravity in minuscule amounts. The problem is, he only knows this at night when he sleeps. During the day he must live a different kind of nightmare…
The Video by Jonathan D. Clark
Everyone watches the video. You watch it. I watch it. We watch it from a distance with disgust, with tension, with the dark thrill of drama. What does the video say about us? What have we become?
The DreamCube Thread by Ellinor Kall
Everyone wants a DreamCube. Feed the ethically cultivated neural tissue, keep it by your bed, and watch it dream! But people are curious. People have questions. Why are the Makers so elusive? Join the discussion!
Luz Beyond the Glass by Ava Kelly
Huge glass spheres sit in gardens. Everyone knows they absorb pollution from the ground, water, and air, to cleanse the filth our ancestors left behind. What most don’t know is what resides in them…
Every Aspect of Every Recollection by Peter Burton
A wonderfully philosophical piece, taking a wander in a mind that has only itself left. Do our memories give us life? Our fantasies? Is it possible we are each more than a single timeline?
Ancestors by Juliane Graef
There is no way back from what humans have done to Earth. But there might just be a way forward… A touching story depicting the persistence of consciousness and three aeons of what happens after.
You can buy your copy now from any of the following:
I’m thrilled to tell you that the very first anthology from Orchid’s Lantern is due for publication on 28th February 2020! Vast: Stories of Mind, Soul and Consciousness in a Technological Age has been in the works for the last few months, and it’s looking better than we ever expected.
We asked authors to think about the relationship that current and imagined tech has with the human psyche. Does it change us, or do we change it? How might such a relationship develop in the future, and what could the unexpected consequences be?
The resulting submissions were fascinating, and we have pulled together the very best we could find to make this exciting, thought-provoking volume.
Some stories border on the fantastical in their scope, while others paint a picture of a world we recognise. We have pieces that explore the relationship between social media, marketing and consciousness. We have extrapolations of quantum physics and what we know about the dreaming mind. we have dramatic life extensions, 3D printed medical care, DNA splicing and artificial biology aiding environmental recovery. And, at the heart of all this, we have a careful appreciation that science remains humble in the face of our inner mysteries.
The contributors and their stories are:
Stephen Oram – Chimy and Chris
J.R. Staples-Ager – Little Thief
Thomas Cline – Limited Infinity
Vaughan Stanger – Dreamtime
Sergio ‘ente per ente’ Palumbo – The Weight of Your Mind
Jonathan D. Clark – The Video
Ellinor Kall – The DreamCube Thread
Ava Kelly – Luz Beyond the Glass
Peter Burton – Every Aspect of Every Recollection
Juliane Graef – Ancestors
Vast is available to pre-order right now from most bookstores, both online and on the high street. The Kindle edition can be found here, with versions for other e-readers being rolled out over the next few days. You can also get the paperback edition right here on Orchid’s Lantern.
I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover this book. Like many other reviewers, I was initially pulled in by the magnificent cover but stayed for the promise of unconscious mind exploration: exactly what I love to read.
A policeman is called to investigate a number of killings in the Submundo Delta: a highly unusual but naturally occurring basin in South America. To reach it he must travel by boat through the Zona del Olvido: a region people forget the instant they leave it, including everything they did there. (Just like sleep, I thought. A gateway to the unconscious.) But the creatures that are being killed aren’t people. Not exactly…