Life in tablet form

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOKS

I’m feeling quite proud of myself, for swallowing some of the pride I was only just learning not to be ashamed of. I feel like Joseph, throwing off his dream coat: I published an e-book, which is far bigger news than it ought to be, but it’s why I did it that’s more important. It’s because Cyrus Song contains a perfectly plausible answer to the ultimate question, of life, the universe and everything; and because more people wanted to read it.

Life in tablet form

A few forays aside, I’ve not bothered the Kindle charts, partly through a kind of snobbery. The self-publishing independent writers who’ve democratised the publishing world are undeniably many and talented, but certainly in the e-book area at least, it can be somewhat overcrowded and claustrophobic with so many competing for attention. The printed book market is only slightly less so, but as one who’s always read printed books, I’ve eschewed the non-tangible ones. If nothing else, I’ve been somewhat foolish and naïve in denying myself such a market.

The writers I know personally are split roughly between three publishing camps: Printed books only, just e-books, or both. Some write different books for the two platforms, and others dual-publish both formats, sometimes offsetting the two (kind of like a cinema release and a DVD). I was only firmly pitched in the tangible book camp, because that’s how I like to read. So while I was talking to writers, I also consulted friends who read too.

Reading preferences are as varied as writing genres, and I had to conclude that I really was missing a trick by not publishing my books for e-readers.

The recent attention I’ve been getting as a writer, in peer groups, reviews and encouraging comments, has all reinforced what another writer said to me late last year: Don’t be ashamed to be proud of what you’ve done. Coming from where I have (on the streets four years ago) is indeed quite an achievement and this was recognition by someone else (a peer), which made me realise I should accept that I’ve done something quite – dare I say – impressive, especially when I’m so respected as a writer. It can be difficult to accept praise that you’re good at something when you’ve been such an arse in the past, but that’s just the guilt which must be borne by the truly penitent person, who sobered up when drowning personal demons might have been easier.

My recent personal paradox has been that of having a lot to say, but with social anxiety doing its best to silence me, so I write it all down. Like all writers, I crave an audience, but I shied from promoting myself too much, as I didn’t want the attention. And then it hit me, and it was something Simon Fry said, as I’ve carried on talking to my fictional character (see the last two blog posts).

I was a bad person once, who got drunk and hurt a lot of people, and there are very few (all now abandoned) who continue to judge my past, unprepared in some cases to accept that I’ve become a better person in myself, and better than many of them. That’s their problem, for not talking to me (or reading me). Some of that past is my shame and I still carry it. I have chronic depression, PTSD and a life-long guilt trip of sobriety as a hangover, so writing is my therapy. I’m pretty good at that, as there’s so much to write about, and I will be judged for what I’ve become.

I’m a writer now. People have to accept that. If they don’t want to read me, they can exercise consumer choice. If they want to find out what I might have been writing about them, they can do the same. My last two books are the ones I’ll be judged on, until I finish the next. Simon Fry is very good at saying these things for me.

I gave a few copies of Cyrus Song to close friends when it first came out, mainly the younger people I know: students to whom a book would be quite a significant financial outlay. I’ve written before of how I’m aware of this and other demographics, which is why my books can be requested at lending libraries.

One young friend lost her copy, another didn’t want to carry a book around, and a third simply couldn’t be arsed to read anything for longer than a few minutes. The latter was my adopted little sister and mum to my god daughter, Courtney. Typical of many her age, she has a short attention span (and she’s on the ADHD and autism spectra), and she’s somewhat at sea without her mobile phone. I ended up reading Cyrus Song to her, but I can’t do that for everyone, and even as I did, she was distracted by her phone. There it was, right in front of me: if she had the book on her phone, she’d be less likely to lose it and more likely to read the book in between social media.

Of course, others have known this for years, but I was blind to the obvious, even though it was in front of me then, and around me all the time. People do actually read e-books, even though I’ve read hardly any. After an autopsy of the situation, I had to conclude I was a book snob.

I needed more people to hear me, but it was something Courtney said which made me finally swallow the pill. Even though she’s prone to exaggeration, and although it’s a cliché, “Everyone needs to read this book” warrants a writer paying attention. To get more people at least reading my surrealist sci-fi RomCom, I had to make it more accessible. The really big thing I’d missed was the democratisation of the audience, through the very devices which opened up the writing market to so many authors like me. I’d also become jaded with some of the (at best) mediocre fiction offerings out there for e-readers, when it’s a completely free outlet (democratically and financially). Once, it might have felt somehow dirty, like I was selling myself out. But I’ve got a track record and a reputation now, and if you’re good, you’ll stand out in any size market.

Cyrus Song wants to be read, and it is a good book (see the reviews on this blog (on the bookshelf), and on Amazon, where I need more). Unlike its author, the novel decided to go out and be noticed, rather than wait to be found. Simon Fry suggested that, and it’s much more his book than mine. It’s a book for everyone, which is why I’ve made it more obtainable. It’s still available in paperback and always will be, for those who prefer a tangible book (and who might want it signed). But for everyone else, there’s now the Kindle edition (compatible with most e-readers, tablets, phones etc.)

It does still carry a cover price, because I’d be doing no-one any justice making it free. It’s £2.99 and it comes with 14-day lending rights to others. It can also be bought for 99p when buying the paperback, and borrowed for free with Kindle Unlimited. I’m not devaluing myself, as there are no costs (apart from my time) without print, so I make roughly the same royalties per copy, but hopefully in greater volumes now.

I’d like everyone to hear the Cyrus Song, and see that the answers really are all around and inside us, wherever they read the book, and even if they use tablets. The price of a coffee, to wash down the tablet version of the answer to the life, the universe and everything.

Cyrus Song for Kindle (other readers are available) is out now.

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Making flans for Simon

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’d originally planned to spend the weekend making plans for Nigel, but when I realised I had no close friends called Nigel, my plans had to change. Instead I called on Simon Fry, my character, persona, and alter ego from Cyrus Song. We were having dinner and he’d asked me to bring dessert, so I’d made flans.

HHGG Deep ThoughtA poster on Simon Fry’s wall: a design sketch from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

I’d decided to speak to Simon because he’s the person most likely to understand me. Even though I created him, he’s a completely separate person, and any decent writer will tell you that’s a perfectly plausible statement to make.

Before Cyrus Song, I already had Simon Fry’s life story written down. It fills a notebook, which I still have, along with the one containing Hannah Jones. A very small percentage of what’s in those journals is in the novel, but the characters’ speech and mannerisms write more than the words on the page. It’s knowing my characters so well which allows me to bring them to life (convincingly, I’m told). Every writer puts a piece of themselves into their stories and characters, I’m perhaps slightly above and beyond with some of mine.

I have a deep understanding of the human condition (the critics and reviewers say), and I have many personalities in my head, so each of my characters is a mix of those, and of other people I know. I know how Simon talks, because I know how he thinks, but only as far as a poker player would another. Even though I created him, I can’t read his mind. He has so much of his own story in that other notebook, that he’s a strong enough character to not need me (it applies to Hannah too).

It’s handy to be able to do things like this as a writer, and as a socially anxious one, I really do make (as in, create) friends. It sounds tragic perhaps, but it’s actually very useful.

Doctor Hannah Jones is based less on me, but with elements of others I know well in the real world, within her (I’ve tested it out on some of those other people). With all of those people in there, my understanding of human thinking and inter-personal psychology, I can hold a perfectly convincing conversation with Hannah, just as I can Simon. I don’t know if this is proof of my writing skills or confirmation of multiple personality disorder.

It’s the best way I have of getting to know myself. Some would say it’s talking to myself, but it’s more like questioning different parts of myself, so that the whole can get along. We may disagree, but I favour debate over conflict, especially when it’s in my head. This is my coping mechanism, but it’s more my mental health management strategy.

I said after I’d written the book, how much I missed those people, because they’d become so real when they were around me all the time as I wrote them…

I put the flans in Simon’s fridge, and I noticed he had a can of squirty cream in the door. Then we both sat on the sofa, wondering who should speak first.

“I’m not going to be your counsellor am I?” It was Simon. “Because I’ve counselled myself on many things before and wondered why I didn’t get a second opinion.”

“To be honest,” I replied, “I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to go.”

“What did you expect?” Simon wondered. “Because things rarely live up to expectation.” I’d caught him on a pessimistic day (he has those).

“I don’t have any expectations,” I said, “just an interest.”

“Very wise,” Simon nodded. I thought he’d say that.

“What about you?” I asked.

“The same,” he replied, “but if we both sit here just looking interesting, it’s not going to get us very far. So can I ask you a question?”

“It’s not like I can stop you.”

“True, in part. But anyway, why me?”

“I needed someone to talk to, to make it easier for me to talk.”

“So that I can ask you the questions you want to be asked, so that you have an excuse to answer.” Simon is very perceptive.

“You’re right,” I replied (he knew he was), “because you’re the one I spent longest in, and where I found myself.”

“So you’re haunting me?”

“No more than I hope I’m on anyone else’s minds. But in you, I found ways for you to deal with things, which helped myself and others to understand things around themselves.”

“In Cyrus Song?”

“In that book, where a lot of other people might find themselves in those characters.”

“And you have the advantage that you can come round here and talk to one of them.”

“I consider it a privilege.” And I did. Because these words are not entirely my own.

“Well, I can tell you,” Simon said, “that you created a whole world for me to move around in freely, as you can see for yourself. Beyond this world, you’ve created others which you’re equally free to occupy, but you’re always welcome here.” I’m not sure he could really say anything else (I’d be a bit fucked, like humanity at the start of the book).

“Perhaps we could invite Hannah along?” I wondered.

“Yes, I wondered how long it’d take you to get round to that. Let’s see how we go,” which is how I myself usually tell people to chill out. “And let’s do that soon,” which is something I rarely say, for fear of intrusion into someone else’s life.

This was turning into a story in itself. A man who was after my own heart, had overcome a lot in his life, and especially in the two week period covered in our book. Although it’s a surreal and twisting science fiction yarn, and with a nod to Douglas Adams, it’s very much a book from my own heart, and with a dark inner soul of its own. It’s a story of two people, who with a lot of help, find out much they didn’t know about themselves and the universe around them. I’ll be talking to Simon again soon.

As a writer I have multiple universes I can visit, but as a socially anxious person, I felt more at home in Simon’s flat. Even the flans seemed like some sort of unconscious collaboration, an ever-present threat of potential comedy while we spoke, should either of us be inclined. But we’re far too grown up and introverted for that sort of thing.

Cyrus Song is available now. The prequel stories of Simon and Hannah (and Captain Mamba) are told in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Simon said we should meet

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I suppose it was partly to do with my curiosity: my ongoing one, with myself; and the deeper one, of the human condition. When I sometimes find it difficult to separate fact from fiction, yet I find the latter the greater comfort; when I can occupy my characters, so that they speak more than their own lines; and when I know them better than many friends who are not myself, I thought it might be interesting to meet up with one of my leading roles. So I popped in to see Simon Fry, six months after Cyrus Song…

Meeting MindsFine Art America

I knew I was at the right place because it looked familiar. The man who answered the door though, didn’t look entirely as I’d expected, even though I’d written him. “Come in,” he said, beckoning with his head.

I was having dinner with Simon Fry, a character I created for Cyrus Song, and I wanted to know how all that had gone for him. His flat was just as I’d left it inside, as I always knew the furniture wouldn’t fit any other way.

I hadn’t given Simon sufficient recognition for his looks in the book, as he was a person very aware of his appearance but without a particularly high opinion of himself. Now that I saw him, he was quite striking. I wondered how things had worked out with Hannah since the book.

“Are you planning a sequel?” Simon wondered, which was one of the things I wanted to ask him about. “Because,” he continued, “I’m wondering whether to hang around waiting for you, or just get on with things.” I had to assume this was a shared sense of humour in an otherwise quite surreal situation.

“I wondered pretty much exactly the same,” I replied, “whether you’d just get on with life after I left you.”

“A strong character doesn’t need the writer to carry them along all the time. If the writer’s good enough, they’ve put enough into that character to make them come to life in a story.”

“Well I’ve got your whole life story in a separate notebook. Very little of it is in Cyrus Song but it was only by knowing you that I was able to convey your story so plausibly. It’s all in what’s not written.”

“Every story,” Simon said, “is where memories go when they’re forgotten.”

“Did you say that or did I?”

“Both of us I suppose. Strange isn’t it?”

“In a nice way,” I agreed. I wondered if it might be worth letting Simon flip the table on me, and let him write my story. I’m more comfortable inside one of my characters anyway.

“I suppose you’re wondering,” Simon wondered, “about Hannah.” I wasn’t sure if I was.

“How is she?” It seemed the most obvious thing to say. I didn’t know the answer to expect, let alone how to respond to any.

“Last time I checked, she was fine.” He seemed to be leading me.

“When was that?”

“I thought you might ask, seeing as her doctorate was in human psychology, before we started talking with the animals.” Funny that. It just goes to show what happens when you talk to a friend who can relate to you. They can give you the answer, without you having to ask.

So that’s the weekend sorted. I might carry this on, as it could help both me and Mr Fry work out how we use the perfectly plausible answer to life, the universe and everything in our book.

Cyrus Song is available now, and the prequel stories of Simon, Hannah Jones, and Captain Mamba are in The Unfinished Literary Agency.

Guardian angels, in the skin

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s much in my real life which I’d like to write about, but which for various reasons I can’t. There are stories developing which could end well or otherwise, and there are others with endings very much open. There are concerns for the health of at least one relative, and many other people’s situations I’m helping in. One story I can now tell, could have gone very badly, and it’s only just beginning.

Dark Angel

Like so many of the young people I’m still in touch with, I met Courtney when I was homeless. I met most of the others while I sat writing in McDonald’s, or later, when I’d established the squat (in an old commercial premises). An initial ‘No minors’ policy in my temporary hermit’s home quickly fell apart, when first one teenager found it and others inevitably followed. In time it became a peaceful anarchy of lost boys and young suffragettes.

My main fear was preconditioned perceptions. Although everyone at the squat was respectful of the neighbours, young girls visiting an older guy is bound to get the thought police thinking wrongly. So began on ongoing battle with the plastic police and defective detectives, who would jump to conclusions and assume that my conduct was inappropriate, despite never enquiring to find out. On any given day, I’d be camped out on a mattress somewhere, with sometimes half a dozen schoolgirls sitting with me. It would be wrong to envy me, for all I heard from those troubled young minds.

If those judges unfit for purpose had attended some sort of anti-kangaroo court, they might have learned the truth. They’d learn little though, as most of what was discussed was intensely private. Those young people (and they were mainly girls) mostly had complex backgrounds and many were without an older guardian, or frightened of the ones they had. To them, I might have been some radical, travelling, free-spirited writer, but most of all, I became an older wise friend they could talk to outside of their peer group.

For me, it was something to do. Those young people gave me purpose and helping them out with words of advice was rewarding. Some of them are doing some amazing things now (a forensic science student, a budding equestrian…) For the most part, they told some fascinating and tragic stories, and I was always touched that they’d chosen to confide in me. And there were never any drugs.

This was all known to the real police, as the squat was just up the road from the nick: I’d been on the wrong side of them (and stayed there) when I’d stolen some food, and they knew where I lived by then. Every so often, a couple of PCSOs (Laura and Mary) or local plain clothes officers (John and another) would pop in after school, just to see who was there, and if they were all okay (many of the youngsters were known to the law as well).

At six o’clock their mummies and daddies wouldn’t come to pick them up, but they’d disperse into the evening and whatever waited at home for them. I really feared for some.

Courtney was at the squat too, but I’d met her before, initially on my first night out with Mike Skinner (on the streets). Her and two friends got talking to me, as I sat on a bench with my life in three Sports Direct bags at my feet. I lied that I had somewhere to stay that night, but had a vague hope a friend at the other end of town might help me out. So I walked two miles to the other end of Tonbridge, with three 15-year-old girls carrying my bags. I asked them to wait while I called at my friend’s door. As I’d actually expected, he couldn’t help out. So I let the girls know I’d be safe for the night, and they returned to their respective homes. For some reason, I later got a slap from Courtney, when she found out I’d lied to her. Even though she was a third my age, she was a protector (she’d lived on the streets before).

Courtney was reassurance that it was possible to be more displaced in life than I was, as most days she’d appear beside me in McDonald’s, either bunking off college or avoiding home. Eventually, she moved into the squat for a while. At the time, she was 16. We let the local police know where she was (they knew her very well), and there was an almost audible sigh of relief from the police station. Now it would be much easier to find a serial absconder from home.

Aged 16, a person isn’t legally obliged to return to an address (certain conditions aside), especially if it’s the same address they’re running away from. The police themselves agreed, that with me in the squat, it was the safest place for Courtney.

In the four years since, we’ve remained close friends, I’ve met many of hers, and they’ve become friends too. We’re siblings, in all but blood (but there’s been blood). We’ve been through a lot ourselves, and together. Long after we left the squat, when Courtney returned first home, then to various shelters, she’d still abscond when life got the better of her, and I was always first port of call for the police (If she wasn’t with me, the network of youngsters from the squat would help us find her). I still would be, but she’s an adult now in the eyes of the law.

When a girl with a history of drug use, and a criminal record as long as her medical one (she has depression and PTSD, and she’s on the ADHD, Asperger’s and other mental health spectra) falls pregnant, interested parties and agencies are inevitable, and so it’s been for the past several months.

Come the day of the birth, I wasn’t there. I know the girl well, but there are parts of some people I never wish to see. I’m sure there were a few people who were surprised when the baby’s skin tone ruled me out of any paternal role, but I’d only remained close to my friend because the father hadn’t.

A Child Protection Order had already been placed on the unborn baby, which naturally stressed an already highly-strung mum-to-be. There was a chance the child would be taken away soon after the birth. Courtney, her mum and her grandmother were very aware of this, as three generations gathered to welcome a fourth, possibly for only a short while. Then, like a rhino quite literally charging through a hospital (bull in a china shop is too clichéd and polite), an uninvited interloper blundered in.

By all accounts (three that I’ve heard), this “friend” ate some food, asked the relatives to leave, and let the medical staff know she was the mum’s best friend and godmother to the baby. Then she went home and posted a self-congratulatory photo proclaiming her godmotherliness on Facebook, expecting I-don’t-know-what. Social awareness and responsibility are as far removed from reality as social media twists some lives.

Far from adulation, a general sense of shock pervaded, among those aware of the insensitivity of the selfish gesture. Everyone else seemed aware that Courtney only wanted to be with close family in a very tense (and possibly temporary) situation, and that anyone else could jeopardise the whole thing. She’d previously said she might need a friend, but quickly realised that none were more important than family, even if hers could only be gathered fleetingly. The gravity of the matter didn’t trump the importance of self in one person’s blind ignorance. Even in the absence of a specific instruction to respect privacy, everyone else got it. If ever the blindly bungling, misguided excuse were to read this, perhaps it might provide some spectacles with which to see the bigger prevailing picture, better late than never. 

This invader hadn’t been the only one competing for attention and accolades as the day of the birth arrived, and the roles of godparents had been brought up many times, mainly by those who wanted to occupy the titles. Courtney herself had more pressing matters to attend to (having the baby and keeping it), so she’d made vague indications to a few persistent friends that they’d discuss it at a later date, perhaps when she found out if she was allowed to actually keep her own child.

So the announcement on social media of the Mr Ben godmother was wholly inappropriate and insensitive, to many people, not least of all the girl who then lay in hospital wondering if she’d even see her own daughter grow up. Now she was looking at Cleo (the baby) in someone else’s arms, while that person looked very pleased with themselves grinning out of Facebook. When it was pointed out to the would-be anti-fairy godmother that her conduct was in fact quite crass (it was as close as you could get to mental kidnap), she responded in self-defence, with yet more disregard for anyone’s feelings outside her own malfunctioning ones. There was never an apology, just prolonged self-flagellation in public.

For my part, I’d explained to my little sis that a godparent isn’t just a badge to be worn by the highest bidder, any more than a Christening should be used for personal gain. Courtney’s about as religious as me, so she gets that a Christening would be a waste of the church’s time, and that of those attending, obliged to dress up for a public display of infant torture as it has water splashed over its head. She’ll have a baby shower instead. But more importantly, choose any godparents wisely.

The godparents would be the ones Courtney needed most, for possibly a very long time, and not just in fair weather or for photo opportunities. Single parenting is difficult in any circumstances, but a mum with so many mental health issues and past problems is going to need help and support. While all those clamouring for selfish attention and entitlement crawled over Facebook, myself and a young friend of Courtney’s (a student midwife) were talking to various agencies, eventually ensuring that she kept Cleo. I helped with the phone calls and emails which eventually got mum and baby a placement in a joint dependence centre. All of this was done quietly by myself and “Charlton” (she’s named after a west London football club, but I’m from Catford), with no premature self-congratulatory posts on Facebook. The key was a letter I wrote.

As someone who’s always been in conflict with authority, Courtney doesn’t trust officialdom. It was a tough job, getting her to see that the various agencies wanted to help her, but that they had both her and Cleo’s welfare at heart. Even though I know she’s a decent person, I also know she’s prone to the odd wobble. She’s slapped me in the face and kicked me in the shins, simply because she gets frustrated. She can’t do that to many people, so she normally runs away. I just wait for her to fall apart, then pick up the pieces.

She eventually realised why everyone seemed to be against her (the courts, social services etc.): all they had to go on was what they’d seen: probation reports, a criminal record, drug use… That was all they knew, because they didn’t know the person, just the pieces of paper. A court hearing was pending Cleo’s birth, and whether Courtney kept her baby would be down to what was presented in court. So I wrote a letter of defence, a personal reference to counterbalance the case against my sister.

There was a lot in the letter (six pages of personal testament) but my closing statement was that I believed (as a friend) that Courtney would change, as soon as she had a reason. She wasn’t one who felt things should be earned, but give a homeless alcoholic a home, and he will sort the rest out with support around him. I used myself as an example of how someone’s life can be balanced, if they’re given something to live for. For me, it was a permanent home. For Courtney, it would be a baby. It was also a massive risk of a friendship, but one I knew would prevail, whatever happened.

I’ve had confirmation since, that it was this letter which helped Courtney into the mother and baby unit where she is now, when it would have been far easier at the time (this was Christmas) to simply place the baby into care. She’s halfway through that placement now, she’s proved me right and she’s vindicated my letter’s content. With Charlton and myself still helping out, the next step is to get her back home from Essex (it was the only place available then) and re-integrated with her own area (Kent), where dangers from the past could upset the balance if there’s no support. A combination of what all three of us have done means she’ll have her liberty back sooner than anyone might have thought.

Charlton and me have both been interviewed by social services and we’ve been asked to become Courtney’s family unit, for all upcoming meetings and hearings with various agencies, then for her ongoing life (and support). We’re recognised by the county council as being appropriate to the roles, and we’ve been asked to write life plans with Courtney, thereby committing ourselves to a judge.

Courtney asked us to be godparents. Auntie Steve and Uncle Charlton will help to bring Cleo up, and we’ll help our friend, as we always have, quietly and with no sense of entitlement. We’re not religious. We didn’t want for it, we didn’t need it, ask for it, or assume it. We earned it, by being ourselves.

Now they’re together, Courtney decided to get a tattoo for Cleo (on herself, not on the baby). She had a few stock quotes and poems in mind, but she thought something original would be more appropriate. So she asked a writer she knows to come up with something that had much personal sentiment besides the context of the words themselves.

The greatest love
grows inside
The strongest bond
my eternal pride

Cleo-Rose 18.12.17

With thanks to Courtney, who allowed part of her story to be told. All agency and authority references available on request for appropriate parties.

The perks of being a cult

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I wrote recently about co-operatives of writers supporting each other. I noted how few of us are likely to be read in any great volumes, let alone see mainstream success (however brief). Us indies are stuck on the fringes, a huge collective talent, but who don’t fit the commercial publishing mould. Being an indie and having a following makes you feel a bit of a cult (spellcheck is on), which may be all the attention my writing gets (or needs).

Quotefancy-4278902-3840x2160

We’re unlikely to be recognised in public (which suits someone like me), and it’s unlikely we’ll be bestsellers, but we have each other, and our discerning followers. Previously I made a commitment to kindred spirits, to read one book a month and write a considered review. I’m not a prolific reader and others might offer to do more, but I thought this more valuable than chasing likes or followers. Then I checked my own book sales, got depressed and fucked off for a sulk.

I’ve chosen a book for this month, and it’s being shipped from the USA. I’ll post a review here and in other appropriate places online (the bookseller’s site), and hope it increases interest in another writer.

We all love our followers and readers, we hope they’ll buy our books and tell other people about us. I value my readers, however few, because when I’ve hardly any human contact in the physical world, my loyal band of followers are the closest I want to get to anything normal. What I and other writers value most, is an online review. For the socially anxious writer, it’s like having a spokesperson on your side.

I’ve been told I’m unique. My short stories can certainly be weird, and my sci-fi novel is most definitely strange (“An extraordinary juggling act”, as one reviewer put it). I like them like that, so if that makes me a cult (it’s still on), so be it. It’s the way I write and that’s what some other people like.

Whatever kind of writer (or indeed, person) I am, I had to get back into character after my recent sulk (it was a genuine depressive episode, but I was still wallowing in myself). I inhabit my characters and stories, just as my virtual online persona is more real than the physical one, and my published writer’s life is that of the cracked actor, trying to transcend depression.

The key to getting my writer’s hat back on, was unlocking my studio from what it had become: Just my home, and not that of the writer, as I’d hit a block and given up for a while. It was a wobble like any other depressive might get, and it’s being a writer which helped, therapeutically giving me a means of outlet. I had to occupy my writer’s life again to deal with the real one it masks.

As a flat, my studio is not everyone’s idea of a des res, but my social landlord is to be congratulated for squeezing one more flat in, where someone with little choice will gladly live. It’s a 12 foot square room, which would be dominated by a bed, so I don’t have one. I have a futon, and for various reasons, it’s the most comfortable bed I’ve ever had: For starters, it’s mine. I bought it new, and it’s only ever had me in it. It’s like sleeping on a padded packing pallet, which somehow reminds me of being homeless. I don’t know why that would be a good thing, but after I’d slept on concrete floors, park benches and once in a bin, wooden pallets were quite the luxury. Then it folds up and makes a comfy chair to match the sofa. There’s a small kitchen, and the toilet and shower rooms are in a communal corridor, but for my exclusive use. The neighbours here are all social tenants too, so it’s not like they’d judge someone on having an outside lav (and anyone who did would not be welcome to use mine).

Put all of that into an office, and you’ve got a pretty cool place to work. So thinking of my studio more as a writer’s office, is better than moping around in a poky flat with not much else to do (huge DVD and music collections, but no attention span). The writer’s life really is the only one I can live, or I’d be more insane than I already am.

I walked back into my imaginary world, where all of my imagination lives. Simon Fry might as well have been sitting on my sofa, as parts of this studio mixed with others I’ve lived in, make Simon’s flat in Cyrus Song. Any minute, Hannah might call him, just as the girl she’s based on now texts and calls me more, since she understood what we’re all about. Sometimes I even imagine that fucking rabbit hopping around, plugging him into the hi-fi and listening to him in German through the Babel fish.

If I had the gumption to travel to London, I could visit the many incarnations of The Unfinished Literary Agency, where so many stories evolve and revolve. To Lewisham too, and to Mountsfield Park. I could visit London Zoo and dine at August Underground’s. Or I could use quantum mechanics to build a ship to take me to the many other worlds I’ve created.

The tragedy is it’s all here, in this studio, at the desk, in the typewriter, in me and in my books; my imaginary life my only one. A person trapped inside themselves but grateful of their inner writer for escape. What I can’t see, hear or feel; where I dare to venture, I imagine, and I write, while few read. But I’m socially anxious, so I don’t want to be mainstream. I just have to keep telling myself I’m a cult, and making sure spellcheck is on.

Writing intended for reading

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Rather than freshly back, I’m jaded from a week away, without actually going anywhere. It was a week in which I found myself conducting some sort of twisted social experiment, on myself (when there’s only oneself for company, there aren’t many others willing to be experimented on): I stopped writing. It was a depressive episode, a writer’s block, everything which helps the others along.

writing_on_the_wall_by_blue70Blue70, DeviantArt

It started with separation anxiety, after my last monthly visit with my children. Geography and finance are the governors of that infrequency, so the time together is precious. Meanwhile I was helping some friends with their own issues, yet no-one seemed to have the time to ask me how I was doing. No-one asks, so I don’t get the chance to tell anyone how it tears me apart every day. That’s just what living alone is like, and no-one seemed to be reading my writing.

Christmas had already been a solitary one for many people around me: a family mostly reliant on public transport, and regular visitors to my studio displaced by their own families (one was having a baby).

Aside from the monthly outing with the kids (a known and practised quantity), anxiety means I find travelling very difficult. I have mobility issues, even though my disability isn’t physical. This causes problems in itself, not only by being a self-perpetuating mechanism, but by rendering me almost exclusively displaced, unless people come to me. But it’s often the same people I’d like to get to myself, and therein lies the biggest issue.

I’m not able to demonstrate how much I care for some people, not through an inability to express myself (sometimes I do that a bit too much), but because my brain keeps me locked up. It’s frustrating, and it must make me look pretty shit when I won’t get on a combination of buses and trains to visit someone in hospital, but it’s the invisible disabilities of anxiety and paranoia which make it that way. So I feel even more shit about myself, which fuels the depression.

I want to tell people about my own struggles, but I don’t want to be a burden. I want to help with theirs, but don’t wish to intrude. I care about people but I don’t want to bother them. Then I wonder if that makes it look like I don’t give a shit. It’s all self-perpetuating.

So I’m living alone, feeling pretty hateful towards myself, missing a load of people who can’t visit me and who I wish I could go to myself. But the same regular visitors I might rely on as chaperones are the others who’ve been away. Another self-propelled paradox, just like anxiety and paranoia, which have no place together, other than to encourage each other along. I wished I had someone to do that for me.

I questioned my value as a writer, and as a person. I’m living alone and lonely, I’m depressed, and I’m an alcoholic: surely the perfect storm, at least for a relapse.

Although such a thing might have pleased some, it didn’t happen. I’m diagnosed with alcohol dependence syndrome, self-managed with controlled intake. The term ‘functioning alcoholic’ doesn’t mean someone who gets drunk but just about maintains bowel function, it’s someone who drinks little and often throughout the day.

I didn’t hurt myself, and there was no attempted suicide. That would be a failure and a defeat. If I wanted to kill myself, I’d make sure I was successful. The only attempt at anything which could be pinned on me, was some attempted accounting I did when I wound up a couple of my old companies, before the rest of my life fell apart. I got over that, so a depressive episode wasn’t going to beat me.

Episodes of depression are like unwelcome friends or relatives: They turn up unannounced, with no prior warning and no idea of how long they’d like to stay. Friends and relatives of someone with depression might sometimes fear to tread, wondering how long they’re likely to be lumbered. Sometimes you have to place yourself in others’ positions to see how they see things, and you may not like what you see. It’s all part of living alone with depression, but I do wish others could appreciate what depression actually is. Anxiety breeds paranoia and vice versa. They conspire together, and loneliness magnifies it all. Sometimes it wants to kill me, but I won’t let it.

Just as some advanced species in my sci-fi writing have transcended war, concluding it to be a waste of time, I try to rise above a situation. The only way to explore it is to question it, and write about what I find. Thoughts can quickly grow when you’re your own sole interrogator.

And there it was, staring me in the face, like it had been all along. Except I was so wrapped up in myself and with no-one else to point it out that I didn’t see it. Another paradox. I was away from home, while still being at home. I didn’t feel at home being away, even though I was here. The thing I’d lost was the writing, and I’d only stopped doing that because I didn’t think anyone was reading me. I still don’t know, but why should that stop me?

It begs other questions, like why can’t I go out and write, if writing is my home? That’s a whole load more blog posts. For now, it’s all I have, so I’ll just keep doing it, doing it at home, and seeing what happens. Just as in real life, I need people to find me, as I lack the confidence to find others.

It’s only writing which gives me a reason to live. If people don’t read me, is that less reason to live? When I have no-one else to talk to, is my writing just talking to myself?

Now that I think about it, it’s the only thing I can do. If no-one reads, it means it’s more private and I can say more. I’m a socially anxious writer with things to say, and it’s perfect, because that’s the kind of thing people like to read. It’s a paradox which works.

I write, because one day I won’t be able to. My words will always be there to read, even when I’m no longer around. All I have to do is leave them where they can be found. Unlike my attempted accounting of old, I’ll persevere with my attempts to be read.

A timeless plot device

FICTION

In one of the stories in The Unfinished Literary Agency, a writer loses his most cherished possession: a pen. Even though I prefer to use a keyboard (I can type faster than I write (neatly, at least)), and although I refer to my laptop as a typewriter, the pen (or pencil) is the most basic, portable and enduring tool of the writer. And so it is in this other story, where it’s used as a plot device. A previous draft of this appeared on this blog, but this is the final version, from the book.

I used to think I might one day be a prominent scientist or writer. When I became neither, I decided to be a sci-fi writer, and apparently I’m quite good at that. This story was co-written with my son (13), who knows about as much of what he wants to do with his life as I did at that age. One of his many aspirations is to be a writer, and although I’ve advised him not to take the route I did, I’ll encourage him only if he decides that’s what he wants to do. Whatever he does, he has a story in a published book with an ISBN, which grants him some sort of immortality. He’s got a copy of the book, but he’s a teenager, so it’s easier for his peers to read it on a screen…

tower_bridge_wp

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

Animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

“Hello,” Eve replied.

“What’s your name?” The crow asked.

“Eve.”

“Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Desiato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room.

“Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

“Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

“Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

“Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

“Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

“Would you like your chair?”

“Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

“So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

“Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

“Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

“Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

“It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

“Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

“But how can I hear you?”

“Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

“One of them.”

“Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

“And others followed.”

“Many. Then everyone.”

“So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

“Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

“But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

“I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

“It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

“It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

“How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

“Lonely.”

“That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

“I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

“Who’s she?”

“He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

“A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

“Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

“I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

“If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

“You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

“Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

“Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

“I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

“But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

“There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

“That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

“Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

“Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

“Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

“Looked at like this, yes.”

“But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

“It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

“Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

“He was in London Zoo?”

“Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

“Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

“So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

“And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

“I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

“You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

“I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

“Why’s that?”

“Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

“It was a human thing?”

“It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

“Which was?”

“The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

“So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

“What’s not?”

“Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

“So where do we look?”

“Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person.

“This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out, right here, where it began.

“It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.