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North of the Book

Chaz has given permission for North of the Book, the regular column he wrote for Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society, to be reproduced here. Earlier columns appear on this page, later and still later ones on separate pages, and there is a full list of topics on the North of the Book home page.

Read Cooking with Petrol, Chaz'z introduction to his columns for Prism.


Since I wrote the last column, people - starting with Herself, the editor of this rag - have been asking me why I wanted to gut myself like that in public. The answer, of course, is that I didn't want to, but that's the job. Don't you guys read? That's what we do. We do it through a glass darkly, and call it fiction; or we do it right upfront and open, and call it memoir or autobiography or sometimes an object-lesson, tuition for the wannabes. Whatever we call it, that's the process. Writing isn't or shouldn't be a case of Apollonian detachment, we're not building Japanese rock-gardens here; it's a messy, earthy, skin-stripping business, and it hurts. Or it ought to, if the writer's being honest with him- or herself and the reader. To borrow from a source I would not ordinarily quote: if it's not hurting, it's not working.

People have also been asking me what were the books I talked about last time. I didn't give titles or publishers then, because I do not want to exploit the opportunity of this column by turning it into self-advertisement; but for the curious, the World Cup anthology is The Agony and the Ecstasy, edited by Nick Royle, published by Sceptre; my short-story collection is Blood Waters, published by Flambard Press and available from them, or - if you're very, very lucky - from a bookshop.

And finally in this question-and-answer session, What does the title of the column mean, Chaz? Well, I'm glad you asked me that one, those of you who did. Titles can be difficult. For me, at least. Usually I cheat, by thinking up an interesting-sounding title first and writing a story to fit it (yes, honestly. The prime example is the fantasy series I'm working on at the moment - and whoops, here I go, advertising again. But I knew the background and how I wanted to use it, I knew where I wanted to set the first volume, the only thing I didn't have was a story. So I looked at a map of the real castle my own castle is based on, and saw that one of its turrets had a name, only no-one knew what it meant. I stood there in the bookshop thinking, "Tower of the King's Daughter, great title for volume one, Chaz"; and before I'd walked home I had three matching titles for the rest of the series, and the plot just all fell into place around them, the way they do sometimes...).

But I made the mistake of writing the last column before ever I thought what to call it. Not smart. Debbie asked me for a title, and I put my brain on the rack. Nick's of course had been the Diet-Column, and I'm a bit of a foodie, so for a while I thought let's stick with the theme here, only we'll have no more of this lean asceticism; let's be inflammatory, let's call it "Cooking With Petrol".

That felt a little abstruse, though, and not terribly relevant to what I wanted to do with the space. And it so happens that I'm working on a big arts project at the moment, where poets and prose writers and visual artists are all being hurled together in a grand collaboration, with the ultimate aim being a CD-ROM. That's called the Book of the North. My mind has this terrible habit of playing with words and phrases, I'm stupidly fond of puns; it was inevitable that sooner or later I'd flip that title around, and try to find some way to use it. Where better than here? Going north of the book carries implications of a hinterland, and of exploration; and that's what I want to do with this column.

It's almost impossible to write about the process of writing, what is there to say except that you sit at a keyboard every hour that you can find or fake, and knock words together until they stop making those ghastly clunking sounds and start to resonate pleasantly inside your head? But the more you do that, the less time you're actually left free to carry on doing it; suddenly there are meetings and lunches, signings and tours, talks and committees and columns and cons. Not to mention strangers stopping you in the street. I was recognised twice last week: once by a Big Issue seller (really sweet moment, it's only the devil in me that whispers I might perhaps have preferred someone who had both a bookshelf and an income...) and once by an ex-store detective, who apparently used to follow me around Waterstone's 'cos I looked so suspicious and never bought a book. In the end he mentioned me to his boss, pointed me out on the CCTV and was told, "Oh - no, that's not a shoplifter, that's an author..."

Anyway, all of that peripheral stuff, the occupations and preoccupations of a jobbing writer, makes up the territory that I want to wander over in an oblique and allusive kind of way; so North of the Book is where we go, okay? Next time, maybe I'll tell you about the other stranger who stopped me in the street one time and nearly ruined my life for me, nearly destroyed my oldest finest friendship. But it was all right in the end, I took cruel revenge. I put her in a book, exactly as she was: mad, bad and dangerous to know. I never do that, never ever - except that it was the same book I put my brother in, whole and entire. Oh, but I was feeling vicious that year...

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I have a five-year-old friend who's currently struggling grimly but gamely up the lower slopes of Mount Literacy. Her kitchen walls, as per tradition, have been papered with her artwork; staying with her this weekend, I noticed that she's taken to adding captions to the drawings.

At first sight, they looked like Greek to me. Suddenly I was the one who was almost pre-literate. In itself it was a strange moment, a rôle-reversal that was startlingly uncomfortable. I had to spend some time studying the shapes of her letters before I could read them; even then, there were some blocks of text that bewildered me until I realised that she was using a basic shorthand on top of her uncertain spelling. She didn't bother with spaces between words (she never pauses when she's talking, either) and she left out a lot of individual letters, mostly vowels. I had a rush of recovered memory, my own early attempts at writing: the impatience with this slow and difficult art that impeded the urgency of the message, the yearning to hurry past tedious vowel-sounds to get to the far more fascinating consonants, the hard clicky figure of a k or the soft curving sibilance of an s...

A few months ago, over lunch with an editor, I learned something that amazed me. I'd thought that I knew it all, that nothing in this business could surprise me now, but I didn't know this: that there are people out there, book-buying people whom I suppose we must call readers, except that they don't actually read the book. They read the dialogue, and literally nothing else. If they can't follow the story from that alone, they abandon it. No doubt there's a thesis to be written about this phenomenon, the novel-as-playscript I suppose one would call it or perhaps the couch-potato's search for the literary pot-noodle, what's easy to swallow and never mind if it's utterly unnutritious. One would I suppose blame television, the shrinking attention-span, the soundbite culture, all those pre-millennial ills of the intellect that dog this dog-end of the century.

Whatever. I was genuinely shocked; I have a mad passion for the whole art of storytelling, and I hate to see it abused. Except that then, of course, I had another of those memory-rushes. Call it a reality-check, a puncture to my pomposity. I was honestly never that bad, but certainly as a teenager I read voraciously but carelessly, skipping dull description to get on to character or dialogue or action, those points that add strength or depth or movement to the story. I didn't care what the landscape looked like, nor the people who inhabited it; I wanted to know what those people were doing or thinking or saying.

As a writer the same temptation, the same impatience is there always. The next vivid scene, the next potent moment has an allure that drags at the attention, that steals any glow of pleasure from writing the necessary links. In ballet there's a process called 'travelling', a simple scutter of undecorated steps across the stage; too much of it is a sign of weak choreography, but dancers do have to be moved around between one set-piece and the next. You can't make a loaf with nothing but leaven, nor even leaven and flour and fat. You've got to put a little plain water in the mix, to bind it all together.

Similarly, you can't make a book with nothing but its big dramatic moments. Cinema trailers look great, but they don't tell a story. I once bought a video for a cricket-loving friend, Botham's Ashes it was called, purporting to convey all the excitement of the '81 Test series. Endless shots of Botham cracking sixes and taking wickets, highlight after highlight - and it was completely meaningless and actually simply dull without the context, the hours of grinding tension in between. I've always loved thunder and lightning, but they're the product of a storm, not the core of it; you need weather fronts and cloud cover first, the slow build of systems.

All that may seem obvious, but I have known would-be writers who ignored it altogether, who thought they could cherry-pick the process: write all the exciting bits first and then fill in the gaps later. Build the bones, they said, and add the flesh after. Sorry, folks: fine in principle, only confounded by a total misunderstanding of how fiction works. A tale draws its strength from the telling; any story is a journey, and it grows as a journey grows, day by day and step by step. If you only whizz from one beauty-spot to the next, you may have seen a lot of lovely things but you certainly haven't travelled; and no, thank you, I don't want to see your snaps.

Which all means that while my little friend Rachel can certainly go her own idiosyncratic way with the language while she's a kid, eventually she'll have to accept that boring old vowels and spaces and such really are important if she wants to tell others what she's so busily telling herself just now. Hell, if I have my way, I'll even teach her how to spell...

* * *

One final brief note, on another subject altogether: for the last three years, my novels have been shortlisted for the BFS Award. I've been so convinced that I was never going to win, I'd managed to persuade myself that the award didn't really mean anything; it's not like the Booker, after all, there's no cheque and no noticeable kudos in the wider world, only the world's most gorgeously ugly statuette. Just a gesture, I told myself, nothing significant. No loss.

Then I won it. I'm sorry, but I did. And suddenly discovered just how wrong I'd been. I'm a writer, it's my job to express emotion clearly in words, but I simply can't describe how I felt: 'ridiculously chuffed' doesn't come close. I've been basking ever since. So thank you, okay? All of you who voted for me - and, what the hell, all of you who didn't too. This is no time for discrimination...

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Welsh I'm not, and except for the typing I'd make a lousy secretary; but Ron Davies' recent misadventures (recent at the time of writing, that is, just last week; months ago, it'll be for you. Isn't time travel wonderful?) have chimed a set of my coincidence-bells. Here in Newcastle we have a stretch of open land, the Town Moor, which cuts like a cake-slice to the heart of the city. My house overlooks it, and I spend a lot of time wandering there (unlike one of my friends, who refuses to cross it ever since she read my first book - but that's another story). Like Ron, one night I met a man I didn't know; like Ron, I committed a serious error of judgement; like Ron, I resigned myself to the inevitable.

Luckily, unlike Ron, I wasn't robbed at knifepoint, though that's been known. My error of judgement lay in talking to him - or rather listening. It's one of the rules for night-time strolls around here, that you pass strangers in silence, and quickly. Strange things can happen, otherwise. Strange things happened to me. We walked the moor together for an hour, and he told me many things I didn't know: how to extract the most juice from a lemon (roll it on the chopping-board before you cut it - this works), how to make love to a woman (round and round, apparently, rather than in and out - whether this works, I'm not in a position to say), how important it is to get to India before you're thirty, because otherwise you'll never make it (I was twenty-nine; I'm ten years older now, and haven't got there yet).

We walked, he talked, I resigned myself; and sure enough, I put him in a book. Where, incidentally, he became a lot more interesting. Real life may be stranger than fiction, but it's also a great deal duller.

Which brings us, more or less, to the theme of my essay: research.

There are writers who do it, and writers who don't. Chief among the former, in my experience - and unsurprisingly - are those many writers who were journalists first; Freddie Forsyth is the exemplar. Ninety per cent of his effort goes into the research, which he loves; the actual writing he does not love, to put it mildly. Frankly I think it shows, and not only in the quality of the novels, but in their structure also. Read Day of the Jackal, read The Dogs of War - ninety per cent of the story is preparation.

Me, I am the exemplar of the contrary view. Again, it may well show; I'm not the man to ask. But what I'm interested in, what I love is telling the story: creating the characters, creating the voice, watching to see what happens. It's a constant process of discovery; planning spoils the fun. Besides which, I really don't care where the safety-catch is on an AK-47. It's just not that important to me that a book be accurate, so long as it's credible.

I was on a panel at a FantasyCon a few years back, along with Steve Laws, Nick Royle, Pete Crowther, others. The subject was research, and I was the heretic; fine. It turned out that both I and another of us - Nick? Steve? I don't remember - had recently written about riots, and we'd both wanted to use petrol-bombs. T'other guy had done the thing properly, gone to the fire brigade and explained that he was writing a novel, and could they please tell him the proper ingredients for a Molotov cocktail? Which they did.

I didn't do that. I would have settled for bottles filled with petrol and wicked with rags, except that while I was working on the scene, I happened to bump into a kid I knew on account of he'd burgled my house a couple of times. We got talking, as you do round my way. He'd recently been involved in a couple of minor riots, and he very kindly explained to me the proper manufacture of a petrol-bomb, how you add sugar to make it burn hotter and soap-flakes to make it cling.

I was telling this story on the panel, when Nick grabbed the microphone and said, "Chaz, that is research..."

Which I suppose it is, but it's of a very different quality: research by serendipity. Research: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. If I hadn't had that encounter, I would have made do with more primitive bombs; the book would have lost a little richness, perhaps, but it would never have been missed. (In fact, thinking back, I've a feeling the recipe was cut in any case: there's this clause in publishing contracts that 'the work contains no statement, information, advice, instruction, recipe or formula which, if acted upon by the user, could cause physical injury, damage or financial loss', and my Molotovs may have fallen foul of that.)

I could make a grand case for how serendipity is the only honest way to develop a novel, how a writer should only use what material is gifted to him; but that's bollocks. The truth is, I'm still too shy to approach strangers, waving my Society of Authors membership card and demanding to be told their secrets. But actually I like it this way; I enjoy the fact that my books are a mosaic of my life, fleshed out with fragments of my own experience that readers would never guess were autobiographical.

Besides which, I've recently been smitten with a severe case of irony. I've spent ten years writing contemporary thrillers, set very much in the real world, for which I've done no research at all beyond making a few phone-calls to solicitor-friends or doctor-friends or whoever (and only ever after I've written the first draft, so that the facts don't get in the way of the story). Now suddenly I'm writing fantasy also, all mystery and magic, set in a world I made up entire - and I've been researching it for the last four years and I don't know near enough yet, I'm still nose-down in a history book every morning. Research is a bore, but hey, finding things out is fun...

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One of the great joys of being a minor local celeb (and I do mean minor, and I do mean local: no inflated egos here) is that the media round about tend to be a little short of talent, so they're always looking for new ways to recycle old faces. Or more specifically, old voices: Radio Newcastle is ever on the hunt, and the hunt leads often to my door. Partly this is because I live two minutes' walk from the studio, so I can plug a gap for them at a moment's notice; mainly it's because they know I'm an absolute tart, whose mouth cannot shape the word 'no'.

They used to have me once a year to talk about my new book, and irregularly at other times if there was something bookish in the news or otherwise on their minds. But Radio Newcastle works like fly-paper, it never lets go. This applies to presenters as much as guests; after a few years they got to know me fairly well. So one day my phone rings and it's Julia (afternoon slot, two till five): "Chaz, we're doing this spot about beards tomorrow. You're a well-known local beardie, fancy coming along...?"

So I do that, I defend my beard against a panel of the facially-hairless, and we all have a whale of a time. After that, invitations came more regularly. They're not always such fun; I do a regular phone-in session now among other stuff, an opportunity to hold forth on the day's news and whatever else the listeners fancy, and one time I had this rabid Pentecostal ranting about the evils of abortion. I couldn't hope to persuade him to my own view (that two men arguing about that particular subject is a rank idiocy, it's an exercise in pointless impertinence - oxymoronic, if not purely moronic), but luckily he started quoting Thomas Aquinas at me. What he didn't know, I used to be a theologian in a former life; I knew a lot more about Thomas Aquinas than he did. Actually that was quite fun, in the end...

But theology brings us around neatly to the point of this disquisition. They also ran this series where they got local names in to talk about what they'd change if they ruled the world - what they'd make legal, what illegal, and so forth. I was first in line; and one of the questions was, which one of the Ten Commandments would I abolish?

I have a bit of a thing about the Ten Commandments. They're always spoken of as some kind of holy grail: the foundation of Western civilisation, the immutable basis on which our society is constructed, the moral standard that all right-thinking people look to. Even the irreligious are supposed to accept that therein is contained the wisdom of the ages, an essential code for human interaction.

Do me a favour. Has anyone looked at the Ten Commandments recently, and tried to relate them to life in the latter end of the twentieth century? Never mind abolishing one, I could barely find one there was any sense in keeping.

In order - in the King James version, natch - and abridged for reasons of space alone, they run thus:

So there it is, and there you have it. Go north of the Good Book, and the Three Commandments survive, but only notionally; each of them is routinely broken, every day in every way. And thank God for it, or us poor hacks would have nothing in the world to write about...

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I don't exactly remember who it was first told me that less is more, though I suspect a film-producer friend of mine, who inveigled me once into writing a script for him. "I'm a novelist!" I cried weakly. "There's money in it," he said. "I can do scripts," I murmured, "I can do anything..."

It was an ill-starred venture, alas. I wrote the script, he showed it to a director, and - well, you remember that bit in Amadeus where the emperor or whoever sits through an opera and at the end he just says "Too many notes, Mr Mozart...? I was right the first time. I'm a novelist, I like words. Lots of words...

In the end, I turned the script into the pilot for a rather wonderful TV series, had lots of fun writing synopses for future episodes, and then just slung it into the filing-cabinet and forgot about it. Almost. It's still there, I can find it if I need it. You never can tell.

However, the phrase less is more has haunted me ever since. It led me by strange routes into inventing a whole new theory of art, whereby vigour is related to calorific intake: protein-starved mediaeval Japan produces quiet, meditative views of lakes and mountains where the overriding vision is a sort of hallucinatory stasis (and its own - small! - word for this: they call it wabi, poverty in art), while at the same time the robust Italian diet is the driving force behind the creative frenzy of the Renaissance.

Lately I've abandoned food and am trying to fit the phrase into a geographical model. 'Less is more' sounds not only European, but Northern European: it suits Scandinavia admirably, but sits uneasily with machismo, with the Mediterranean temperament in general. Bergman understood it; Picasso proved it in his sketchbooks, then shrugged it off and painted Guernica instead. Against the gigantism of America, it hasn't a prayer. Pre-Tarantino, Hollywood dialogue-doctors might have nodded in support, but that was only to make more room for car-chases.

My trouble with all of this is, as ever, myself. As a pallid and effete Northerner I ought wholeheartedly to embrace a philosophy of minimalism, of shadow and nuance, but I cannot do it. I'm a theatrical primitive, I like thunder and lightning and big dramatic effects. I like them in the cinema, I love them in the theatre; and damn it, I adore 'em in books, my own or others.

Which is not to say that I cannot appreciate subtlety, in fiction or elsewhere. Within our own genre we have some of its finest practitioners, people like Nick Royle, Joel Lane, Chris Kenworthy (and no, boys, you may not go and join the mainstream, we need you here). Hell, I can even do it myself, when I try. And find value in it. For years I'd had this ghost story in my head, composed for an anthology that never happened; I'd thought it would stay in my head for ever, but Pete Crowther asked me to contribute to a book that he was editing. It was to be a book of hauntings, he said, only the ghosts need not dominate the stories. I made the usual vague promises, rimmed around with caveats - "if I have time, if I get an idea, I'd love to; but I've got this deadline for a big fat novel, and I'm late already..." - and went off on holiday. With my laptop, just in case. Thought about that old story, where the ghosts very definitely did dominate, and thought this would be another invitation I'd never get around to taking up.

Then something happened in my head, as things sometimes do. A while back, I spent a year nursing a long-time friend through his final illness, and I've been writing about it on and off ever since. Suddenly I saw another way to do that, to put him into this story. It meant almost taking the ghosts out; but Pete had given me permission to risk that, and it turned a fairly run-of-the-mill story into something far deeper, richer, more worth while. So I sent my friends away for the day, pushed all thoughts of deadlines out of my head, plugged in the laptop and started writing.

A week later, I had my story. It's quiet, allusive, it barely needs a ghost at all, and I loved it even before anyone else had read it. That's really rare for me, usually I have to have an editor's approval before I can see any value in a piece that I've written. Sometimes, though, you just know when something is right. And sometimes, indeed, less is more. A more prominent ghost would have distorted and cheapened that story, made it less than it should have been.

Only sometimes, though. I've just delivered volume two of my fantasy series (the big fat late book heretofore referred to), and it's massive. Nearly two hundred thousand words of mystery, myth and magic. I'm waiting for editorial comment as we speak; and I know, I just know what they're going to say. "It's too long, Chaz," they'll say. "Too many words, Mr Brenchley." They're smart people, they'll tell me that cutting the flab will give it more punch; if they're really smart they'll use a kitchen metaphor, they'll say that reducing a sauce only intensifies its flavour. Which is true, and not only in the kitchen: I've another book coming out next week (out already, by the time you read this) which is short and tight and wickedly devious, where the reader has to do a lot of the work, where any added explanation would have ruined the effect. But that's a crime book, and this is a fantasy, and the difference is more than a marketing ploy. Sometimes, less is just less.

At least, that's how I feel. More or less...

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You are what you eat (garbage in, garbage out); you are what you wear (you can't judge a book by its cover, but of course everybody does); and yet - proverbially, quotationally - what's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...

Except that I don't believe that, not for a moment. It's an age-old tradition in magic that to know the true name of a thing gives you power over that thing; that's what lies behind the passage in Genesis where God gave Adam the job of naming all the animals, it's a gift of possession. It's why lovers have pet names for each other, unique to themselves; it's why parents attach such importance to the names they give their children (and why sometimes, misunderstanding the magic, they can get it so tragically wrong: there are currently three sisters in Brazil called Xerox, Photocopy and Authenticated. I kid you not).

I was lying in my bath t'other night, listening to a guy on the World Service discussing the psychology of doing a runner, changing your name and starting over with a whole new identity. Inevitably, I was thinking 'there, but for the grace of God...' (he was speaking of fantasists, pathological liars; and hell, that's my job... ); but actually, in a minor way, I have been there and done that already. Twenty-odd years ago, I took a train from Cornwall to Newcastle. I boarded as Charles, stepped off as Chaz and haven't been the same person since. Fundamentally, you are what you are called. When my father calls me Charles these days, it's as if he's addressing a stranger; I no longer recognise anywhere within myself the person he thinks he's talking to. It's a clash of magics: he can't say Chaz (he's the man who named me, after all), and I can't answer to Charles. Makes conversation difficult, but that's families for you. I'd have made it legal, done the deed-poll thing years ago, if I hadn't known how much that would upset my old dad.

Anyway, what has all this to do with books, and writing? Quite a lot, actually. There's the obvious one about how important a character's name can be, how crucial it is to get that right - characters grow to fit their names, and if you're not careful you'll find them doing what you really didn't expect, just because you went and called them Shane, or Wahid, or indeed Rose - but right now I'm thinking more about titles.

Logically speaking, perhaps it ought not to matter what a story is called. The text would remain the same, so you could go for any title that was punchy, resonant and relevant; it ought not to make a difference. But storytelling is not susceptible to logic, and trust me, it makes all the difference in the world. The phrase 'working title' makes my heart sink. Just like characters, stories grow to fit their titles; if you don't get it right to begin with, if you have to do it in reverse, find a title that fits the story, the process is an agony. I'm always happiest if I can start with a title and build the story around it, even if I don't know to begin with what the title means. When I was first thinking about my Crusader-based fantasy series, the Books of Outremer, I found the map of a castle where one of its towers was called the Tower of the King's Daughter, for reasons that were long forgotten. It was a gift; that had to be the title for the first volume. I decided immediately that my king wouldn't have a daughter, and the whole plot of the series grew out of that one serendipitous discovery. Didn't know what the King's Daughter was, of course, only that it wasn't a girl, but that didn't matter. It took care of itself, later on.

Sometimes, the route from title to story is less clear-cut. I once wrote a novel called The Garden, for no better reason than that I quite fancied the simplicity of it. I knew nothing about gardening, and of course had no idea what the book would be about. The word resonated somewhere in my private mythos, and that was enough to start with. As I worked on the book I realised that it had a secret title too, The Garden of Delights - but I kept that to myself, so don't tell anyone, okay?

At the other extreme, I was asked to write a ghost story for an anthology years ago, and took great delight in composing a title that was long and strange. The anthology never happened, but I hung on to the title until another opportunity came round, and the wait made it a very different and I think a far better story (oh, all right - it'll be in Taps and Sighs, edited by Pete Crowther and published by Subterranean Press, and it's called The Insolence of Candles Against the Light's Dying. Pete did ask if we might trim the title, but I bit him. Grr ... ).

Inevitably, this method does have its casualties. At the moment I'm trying to collapse the third and fourth books of Outremer into a single volume, at my editor's request; which means that one title out of the two will be left an orphan, and the other will never quite fit the book that it's attached to. I'm sad about it, but that's publishing for you.

One final thought about names: towards the end of his life, the poet John Clare sent a letter that began, 'Dear Sir - I am in a Madhouse and quite forget your name or who you are.'

Well, quite. That about wraps it up, really.

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This is the second time I've tried to write this issue's column. The first attempt turned out to be a suicide note, so I deleted it. A little harsh, I thought, to break the news to my parents through the medium of a genre magazine...

So instead, here's a meditation on beauty, truth and pain. Beauty is truth, truth beauty, this we know, we've been told so; but what Keats neglected to tell us, the one thing we really needed to know, is that both of them hurt like hell.

You will gather that I've not been doing too well lately, not well at all. I've been residing far down in the Slough of Despond (no, no jokes about towns in Berkshire, please; I am not in the quipping vein), fair wallowing in the mud of it. One of my medical friends thinks I've been clinically depressed, another thinks I've had one of those ME-type mystery viruses; the rest of the gang just shrug wearily and say "It's only Chaz, he does this, he'll snap out of it as soon as he gets back to work..."

In fairness to that callous crew, they're probably right. I usually do get the post-baby blues after a hard jag finishing a book, and I worked so hard at the start of this year, it's not unreasonable that I should suffer some reaction. Only thing is, it's been going on for months now, I've barely written a word since April and this is late July. That seems to me massively unreasonable, and I want it to stop.

So I've been thinking (in the pub, largely), and the tenor of my thoughts runs thuswise. Bear with me if I seem to go off at a tangent here; it'll all come together at the end.

I published a new book this summer, and as usual people asked me if the lead character was based an anyone I knew. For once, the answer is yes. The character in question is very tall, very beautiful, very clever and very young. This isn't wish-fulfilment, I really don't want to be Rowan (and if you read the book, you'll understand why); but a while ago I did know this lad who was taller than me by some inches, better-looking by some orders of magnitude, smarter by some few IQ points and younger by some years. He was also blisteringly self-confident, another aptitude where I couldn't come close to matching him. I used to think I envied him at every point, but I was misguided. I probably wouldn't have swapped then, and I certainly wouldn't now, for one fundamental reason: he'll never, ever make a writer.

Oh, he may write, but that's not the same thing. Jeffrey Archer writes, but will never be a writer. It's the confidence that does it, that does for it. Archer surfs along on the rolling, never-breaking wave of his own certainty; he knows exactly where he's going and where he wants to go, his eyes are fixed on the far horizons of his ambition and he never thinks of falling. He doesn't, he cannot doubt himself or the world around him. And those who cannot doubt never learn to question, and those who cannot question never learn that insecurity is the nature and the beauty of the beast they ride. An ocean that never swallowed a man has nothing to offer a man; the Dead Sea is a dead disappointment.

II faut souffrir pour être belle, one must suffer for one's art, risk all to achieve all: a statement must be true before it becomes a truism, long before it can become a cliché. People climb mountains not because they're there, but because they're dangerous. If you don't look down, if you can't feel the drop at your back, you waste the experience. The best books on climbing are written by those who fall off; that's not coincidence, and it's not a prurient judgement on our part, we the readers who don't climb at all. Those who never fall just don't know what they're missing.

Neither is it coincidence that writers and other creative types are many times more likely to suffer from depression or other mental illness, more prone to alcoholism and suicide, generally a fairly sorry sample of humanity. Self-doubt and anxiety are in the job description; how can you ask questions of the world, if you're not prepared to ask questions of yourself? Or to deal with the answers when you find them, however low they drag you, for however long...?

There's a moment in one of the later Wimsey novels - Gaudy Night, I think - where Peter and Harriet are talking about the problems of writing truthfully. He's being ruthless; she agrees with him artistically, but protests that his approach would make her miserable; he says (more or less) "What the hell would that matter, so long as it makes a better book?"

And that's what it's all about, that's why I must make my bed in the mud now and then. It's not a skinpack for the heart, I don't descend in order to rise again, more beautiful and blazing bright, I'm neither phoenix nor Christ. There's just a price to be paid, a fee for the right to work. It buys us a glimpse of beauty, a stretch towards truth - and if it's going to hurt later, who cares? It's worth it.

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Education, education, education. Say it three times, and it's like blaspheming the aspidistra: something nasty will come down the chimney (prizes awarded, for spotting the source of that). In my case - inevitably, perhaps? Schooldays being certainly the most potent of your life - the bogeyman is memory, nostalgia in its true sense, the pain of returning.

A year ago, as part of a campaign to tempt people into teaching, a series of advertisements appeared with the tagline Everybody remembers a good teacher, or words to that effect. I'm not sure it's true, I don't think everybody meets a good teacher, you have to be lucky; but so happens that I was one of the lucky ones. When I was eight and nine, we had the most extraordinary man in charge of our class at primary school. This was back in the late sixties, when educational theories were rampant; Dr Johnson believed that kids our age could be taught way beyond what most schools attempted, and he set out to prove it on us. And did. What the less-bright kids made of it all, I can't say; I only know that I had a wonderful year.

Dr Johnson wrote his own curriculum, as teachers could in those days. He took us to the British Museum, for a project on Egyptian mummies; he had us reading Beowulf and Gilgamesh; he encouraged us to write and perform our own version of Richard II. At heart, though, he was a scientist and a mathematician. He started us on simultaneous equations, and by the end of the year we were using calculus, although we didn't know it. We built and demonstrated an oscilloscope at the Oxford Science Fair; we programmed the Oxford University computer, back when computers were the size of a small hall and counted digitally, in the finger-sense of the word (I could probably still write programs in KDF9, if someone would give me the necessary ticker-tape machine; hell, I've still got the manual somewhere). I fell entirely in love with numbers.

Then we moved up a class, into 11-plus year, and suddenly we were back to sums in long division, which I could do in my sleep. So I fell asleep, and not only learned nothing new, I forgot everything that Dr Johnson had taught me.

Which is, I guess, the irony of the situation: that I did indeed meet my guru, the man who could have shaped my life the way great teachers are supposed to, and instead he led me entirely up a blind alley. I hated every year, every day of my schooling after that. They say it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all; perhaps so, but it doesn't feel that way. I fell back in desperation on my old passion, the enchantment of words and stories; I passed through several schools & colleges and fled the whole system as soon as I dared to, swearing never to return.

Which is why I find myself somewhat at a loss suddenly, because I am back in education. I like it no better than I did before, despite my being technically on the other side of the fence: this year I am writer-in-residence at a Newcastle university, working largely with students on the MA in Creative Writing. And this after I've spent years, decades insisting that writing is native, inherent, it can't be taught. Oh, I have technical skills that I can share, I have wide experience that I can pass on, but the heart of the process is as much a mystery to me now as it was when I first put pencil to paper, before I ever got to school. Narrative is how we experience our days and lives, an irresistible progression; storytelling is how we learn about the world, from the time we start to acquire language. Maths depends on formulae, logic, the stability of numbers; writing on invention, chaos, the fluidity of words. The one can be taught, but the other surely not.

So why - given my loathing for institutions and the entire educational process, given my doubts about the very notion of instruction in creativity - why have I accepted this job? For the money, obviously. I'm no inspirational teacher, I'm just hungry. If I can be useful to the students - and they tell me that I am - then that's no more than a bonus. I may have lost my understanding of mathematics, but I can still do sums; I still love numbers, especially when they come with multiple zeroes on the end.

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I had this weird dream t'other night, and now I'm going to tell you all about it ...

I know, I know. Words to make the stoutest heart sink, yes? If there's anything more boring than someone else's dreams, I have yet to discover what it is. Dreams are always fascinating to the dreamer, but they're honestly not proper material to share around; the fascination doesn't carry over. They have their own grammar and vocabulary, but it's strictly personal and should be kept strictly private.

I have the same problem with dreams in fiction. It's fair enough in fantasy or horror, where writers are free to make their own rules, where it's legitimate to give dreams a prophetic edge; in real-world stories, assuming the same freedom has always seemed to me to be cheating. We know ourselves far better than we can know our characters, but one thing I cannot do is go to bed knowing what dreams will come when I'm asleep; which being true, why on earth should I assume that I can know what my characters will dream? To claim that I do is to declare those characters as cyphers, artificial constructs, tools in the hands of the toolmaker. Which in a very real sense of course they are, but the art of fiction is to disguise that, to carry the reader into the myth, to build them a world they can believe in. Why call them back from heaven, why snip that slender thread of disbelief from which the edifice must dangle?

Dreams can be picked apart only in retrospect, even Freud acknowledged that; and retrospectively is no way to assemble a story. Foreknowledge is anathema, forbidden.

That said, a great many people of course disagree with me. They're wrong, but I can live with that, I have to. They go on writing dreams into their fiction, and using them heretically; and - which is worse - they go on telling me what dreams have come to them.

Which, as I say, I am about to do to you. I had this dream where my kid sister, small again as she used to be, laid out before me all her little pets, tiny furry mouse-things they were, much like my cats' favourite toys; and one by one I picked them up and squeezed the living juices out of them, and then I walked away feeling wonderfully guilty.

And woke up, and still felt guilty; and thought it a classic horror-writer's dream, nastiness without significance.

Except that I went on thinking about it through the day, and decided that I'd been wrong in my first reaction. It was more than I thought: it was a classic writer's dream, only couched in horrid terms because that's a grammar that's familiar to me, and in fact it was deeply significant. It defined something fundamental about this job of mine that I love so much, this craft of storytelling - something that's so native to the process, I barely notice myself do it any more, and am always surprised when people protest the consequences.

The point is, of course, that writers take what is valuable, what their story demands. If it belonged to someone else before, that's just tough; the story outranks them. We're all Prometheus, we steal the fire that we bring. We have to. Energy can't be created, only redistributed; telling stories is the definitive socialist act. Except that we are none of us Robin Hood, it's not just the rich we steal from. We take what we need, wherever we find it; we act without conscience, and - maybe, if we remember, if we're feeling generous that day - we allow ourselves to feel guilty later. Guilt goes with the territory, but it's as retrospective as analysis, it never gets in the way. What matters is the story, only that.

I had a launch-party a couple of months back, where I read a little from my new book (it's called Shelter, before you ask, and it's all about storytelling, and not at all about guilt). Afterwards I was fielding questions, and someone said, "Chaz, who have you been reading? I heard Robert Frost in that, and Allen Ginsberg, and I'm sure there were others that I missed ..."

Absolutely, there were. I gave him Eliot, Hopkins, Housman - poets all, but that's not important - and mused a little on how all writers help themselves from what they've read, though not normally with as much blatant deliberation. And went on to how we take also from life, from the news, from friends and family; and a few weeks later, there I am dreaming of my sister, and her pets, and my abuse of them.

Except that what I do is not abuse, or not by my lights. It's legitimate usage, annexation for cause. If it causes distress I'm sorry for that, but I'll go on regardless. A new story is always greater than the sum of its parts.

If I told you about my friend who has erotic dreams of Ramsey Campbell, now that would be abuse. So I won't...

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