The Undercover Soundtrack – Chris Hill

My Memories of a Future Life

for logo‘Men, women, flirtation and heartbreak’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by prizewinning novelist and short story writer Chris Hill @Chilled CH

Soundtrack by Bobby Fuller Four, Sonic Youth, Little Jackie, Chad and Jeremy, The Emotions, Sufjan Stevens

My latest book The Pick-Up Artist is the story of a young man’s inept attempts to find love through a web community called the pick-up artists who claim to use psychological techniques to help their members appeal to the opposite sex.

Chris Hill3Authors write books for all sorts of reasons I suppose. Some, a lot smarter and richer than me, will choose what to write based on market research and audience demographics. For myself, what I write starts not…

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If it’s difficult to read, put it down – Nick Hornby says it’s ok

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Nick Hornby. Pic: Joe Mabel

So Nick Hornby says if we find a highbrow book tough going and are not enjoying it then we should stop reading it – now, what do we make of that? It’s an interesting one isn’t it? And liable to divide opinion I’d have thought.

Reading shouldn’t be a chore he says, you shouldn’t do it out of a sense of duty. It should be like watching TV – something that you want to do.

You can read a piece which explains in more detail his point of view and puts it in context here.

My view is that it’s an easy, populist thing for him to say, and that it also fits nicely with the books he has for sale as they are fairly easy reading. Though in saying that I don’t intend to denigrate his work which I’ve always found very worthwhile and entertaining.

A cynic might hear the subtext of what he’s saying as: ‘Don’t bother with all this highbrow nonsense, read one of mine instead.’

And it’s a tempting offer isn’t it, not to have to read anything which challenges us? But when I think back over the books I’ve read I realise that sometimes, the ones I found most challenging gave me the most back in the end. They revealed more to me about what it is to be human and they stayed with me longer after I had put them back on the shelf. If I’d listened to Nick and his quick fix I’d never have finished reading them.

And what else in life should we stop doing because it’s too tough? Generally speaking it’s not fantastic life advice. It reminds me of Homer Simpson saying to Bart:

“Son, if something’s hard to do then it’s not worth doing.”

Great advice Homer and Nick!

Swerving fiction because it’s difficult to read also tends to stop us reading anything which is not contemporary. Because even popular commercial fiction written in another age sounds unusual to modern ears and it’s a struggle to adapt until you get used to it. Get in your literary time machine and travel back even one hundred years and you will find this to be true. But travel further back and you find, for example, Shakespeare’s popular crowd-pleasing comedies, which no doubt were crystal clear when he wrote them, but which now present the reader or listener with a challenge to give up on.

I think it was Philip Larkin who pointed out that people love contemporary poets much more than even far greater poets from a bygone age because they speak to them in the language they use in their daily lives.

So we’ve ruled out all of literary history – but even confining ourselves to present day fiction we might find some of it a bit of a chore. Unusual words to wrestle with, concepts we might find take us out of our comfort zone. Some of us might even find Nick Horby’s work too much to handle. So why bother with it? Let’s just watch TV instead, it’s a lot less challenging after all.

Nick Hornby says he wants everybody to be reading something that they love, it‘s an honourable ambition. But doesn’t that require some effort on the part of the reader? Some level of commitment? The fact is that reading challenging work can be an effort – but it has its rewards too and, in my view, it’s a bit of hard work which repays the reader many times over.

What do you think? Share your views in the comments below.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Garry Powell – Author Profile

Today I’m delighted to be able to introduce fellow Skylight Press author Garry Powell whose new novel Stoning the Devil has recently been published. Thanks for joining me on my blog Garry.

Tell me a little bit about yourself as a person?

As I’ve said before, I try to live like an Italian. What I mean by that is that I try to live life to the full, sensuously and spontaneously, and I appreciate beauty of all kinds, from the beauty of nature to the beauty of art and the beauty of women. Again like the Italians, I think family and community are very important, and as far as possible I try to engage with people face to face, in authentic communication. I’m told I’m blunt, especially by Americans. I’d rather run the risk of offending someone now and then than always be smiling in a false and hypocritical way.

I believe that we can be both spiritual and sensual, that these are not contradictions. I believe in the power of stories to renew us and energize us. I detest corporate capitalism and what Dylan called the “masters of war” who are always trying to enslave us. Freedom is not a question of being able to have guns and not pay taxes, as right-wing Americans believe, but a respect for the rights of others, irrespective of sex, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, nation, and so on.

If you want to find out more about my life, which has been pretty peripatetic, you can read my biography on the Skylight Press website. http://skylightpress.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/garry-craig-powell-on-skylight-press/

Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed?

I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was about 16, oddly enough after reading “Wuthering Heights.” I thought: I could do that! I was probably wrong. I wrote on and off for years, mostly the usual solipsistic and precious stuff that immature people write. I convinced myself that it was avant-garde. It was certainly incomprehensible to everyone but me. No one wanted to publish any of it.

In my early forties, when I had a massive mid-life crisis, I decided to take a chance and go to graduate school to study writing. I went to the University of Arizona’s MFA Program, in Tucson. In some ways the course was weak, but it did get me into the habit of writing every day, and I started writing stories that people could relate to. I wrote a very bad autobiographical novel, which seems to be a compulsory first step. Again, no one wanted to publish it.

Then a couple of people told me I should be writing short stories. Short fiction hadn’t really interested me that much, but I found that I could write them, and was pleasantly surprised to find that people wanted to publish them. I had the idea of doing a story-cycle, with recurring characters, set in the United Arab Emirates, where I’d lived for eight years. I found it a very fruitful idea. I published in some of the top American magazines, and even got one story in the Best American Mystery Stories series. I found an agent, and she failed to sell the collection. She persuaded me to turn it into a novel, which against my better judgement, I did. She failed to sell that too.

Finally, I decided to try sending it to British publishers, and it was picked up immediately by Skylight. I think British publishers are much bolder than American ones. Unlike their US counterparts, they aren’t necessarily looking for formulaic fiction. As you know, Skylight take risks. It’s an edgy stable of writers. I think they’re going to get much bigger.

How would you describe your work – its themes and the important things about it?

I noticed while re-reading the galley-proofs of Stoning the Devil that it’s about sex more than anything–almost every chapter is about a sexual relationship that is violent, abusive, obsessive or forbidden. I wasn’t trying to be sensationalist, though, and the book is far from pornographic. Although there is some graphic sex in it, anyone looking for racy content is going to be disappointed.

What I was interested in exploring was the way sexual relationships mirror the power dynamics in couples. I think the way people behave in the bedroom is often a great way to explore their characters and the way they see themselves in relation to others. And because relations between men and women, and between Arabs and expats, are strained in the Middle East–because of religious repression and patriarchalism, and cultural prejudices, and the materialism and hedonism of the way of life in the oil-boom society–for all these reasons, it’s hard to have natural, healthy, loving relationships there. I particularly wanted to explore the predicament of modern Muslim women.

How do women, who know how the rest of the world lives, cope with the lack of freedom and opportunity? I wanted to look at women who don’t conform to the western stereotype of downtrodden, submissive Muslim women. In my life there, I found that most women fight back, either through open rebellion, or through slyness, deception and manipulation. I wanted to examine all that deeply. I also wanted to look at how westerners were complicit in many of the political injustices in the Gulf.

So in fact it’s a deeply political book, because it’s about how power is abused, although it’s not about politics in the narrow sense at all.

Tell me about your current book – what makes it a great read?

This is what Naomi Shihab Nye, the best-known Arab-American author, said about it:

“Stoning the Devil is a mesmerizing read. You will not find another book like this one. Garry Craig Powell has an astonishing ability to create characters with swift and haunting power. His intricately linked stories travel to the dark side of human behavior without losing essential tenderness or desire for meaning and connection. They are unpredictable and wild. Is this book upsetting? Will it make some people mad? Possibly. But you will not be able to put it down.”

In addition to the fact that I write about complex, intriguing characters with strong desires and real problems–in other words, in addition to the fact that I know how to tell a story well–I think I have a talent for using language lyrically, but with restraint. I might compare myself to Michael Ondaatje in that regard.

I’d like to think that the stories are beautiful, if also bleak at times. Another comparison might be Paul Bowles. I also think that there’s an ambition to the book that most collections don’t have. Because these stories are so closely woven, it’s not just a short story collection but a real novel-in-stories.

Daniel Staniforth, our publisher, told me that he’s teaching Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, and he felt that Stoning the Devil was right up there at that level. (You see how cunningly I am using other people to do my boasting for me!) Love Medicine is indubitably a modern classic, so I can’t think of a higher compliment.

I’ll leave the last word to the masterful George Singleton, who is in my view the funniest writer in America: “These linked stories are utterly mesmerizing and exotic. With a keen ear for dialogue, and a sensibility of the best Conrad, Kipling, Orwell and Achebe, Garry Craig Powell has pulled off a masterful feat.” Incidentally, there’s humour in my book too, even in the bleakest stories.

Where can I buy a copy of the book?

It’s available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, as a conventional book or e-book. You can buy it from Book Depository, from Skylight Press, or order it from you local bookshop. Or you can come to one of my readings and buy it directly from me.

For more information, visit my website, http://garrycraigpowell.com (where you can find my blog about life in the Emirates and Oman too) or like my Garry Craig Powell, Writer Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Garry-Craig-Powell/245224412224546