A small phantom bereavement

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s very difficult to move on when you’re a fish in treacle. Once, I drank myself into the gutter, but I got back up. All depressives have episodic attacks, and my most recent was the longest I’ve known. Now I’m trying to get beyond a few things, but they’re matters guaranteed by their nature to trouble my mind, so it’s more a case of working out how to deal with them while they’ve moved in. When I have few to talk to in physical life, writing is a coping mechanism.

Butzi StageEmily Mann: “When a theater goes dark for the night, a stagehand leaves a lighted lamp on stage… Some old timers say it is to keep the ghosts away. Others say it lights the stage for the ghosts to play. Whichever theory one adheres to, most people agree: A great theater is haunted.” —PHOTO BY PAUL BUTZI

Depression is subjective, and as individual to the person as the character it inhabits. For me, it’s more a feeling I’m about to lose something, than grieving something which is gone. It’s an amplification of the usual anxiety which tells you there’s a shit sandwich in the mail. You don’t know what it is, and often it doesn’t show up, but you know it’s coming. Frustration sets in, and the unknown can become a fear, like all which we don’t understand. I try to look in from the outside to find answers.

There was a time (while I was drunk) when I was more aware than is normal, that my life will inevitably end somewhere. It’s a certainty, it became an obsession, and once there was a voice to constantly remind me. I tried to take my life at least twice, just to shut it up, if living meant having to listen to it every day. I still get the odd anxiety attack from nowhere in particular, but like the cracked actor in my head, those became dark friends for a writer.

If I spent time in my outside surroundings, I have a whole village, with much that might improve life (a park, library, charity shops, coffee shop, pubs, restaurants), but irrational fear keeps me away. It’s a separation anxiety from home, when that’s such a precious commodity, not quite agoraphobia. It’s a constant insecurity.

Buzzfeed recently ran a poll, which asked people which fictional location they’d most like to live in. I’ve used existing fictional homes to shape my own, both in fiction and real life, and my studio is a small version of Matthew Broderick’s room in WarGames, with a bit of Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter’s apartment from The Big Bang Theory. It’s the partial basis for Simon Fry’s flat in Cyrus Song, and bits of it are in other stories with parts of me. It’s filled with music and my Savage Cinema film collection, and it’s where my desk is, so it’s life in a box. It’s a box which is both physical and virtual, like one which might house a Schrödinger’s cat.

I thought I had life, the universe and everything tied up, and I do in theory (it’s all to do with quantum entanglement), but sometimes this life reminds you what an arse it can be, before you can move on to the more interesting stuff, once you’re free of your physical body.

My dad’s recent illness reminded me of the frailty of life. Friendships too, as I’ve lost some, yet gained others.

The youngest of the young people I used to counsel at the squat is just turning 18. The last time we spoke, she was on the threshold of a new relationship. Like all before, I advised caution, as I do with anyone, including myself (the reason I’m resolutely single). There’s someone for everyone, one person can make the difference, and everyone should be allowed to leave their baggage at the door, as I preached at the squat.

They’re all adults now, and hopefully they learned enough from me to not make the same mistakes I did. I’m still friends with one of the others, and it’s been rewarding, to see her settle into life as she’s got older and grown wiser, with help when it was needed. A ghost from the past, who still revisits. 

I continue to write sci-fi, where I imagine future humans (if there can be such a thing; if we can change) as organic-technological hybrids, who’ve transcended current humanity, so that they can resolve issues by understanding and without conflict. All we have to do is step outside ourselves to see a bigger picture, and from there we can be more objective.

I read and learn more about science as it progresses every day, fuelling the fiction author. I write of AI, wondering what it’s like to be human, and humans wishing for all the answers, when those might be in a merging of the two. For as long as I still occupy a physical form, I’ll also haunt computers.

I have many physical ailments pending medical diagnosis, but I fear going to hospital. I need to, as I’m approaching a time when I may have to fight again to prove that my mental health is a disability anyway, as I reapply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

I’ve been through the dehumanising process twice, was refused twice and appealed, and both times I took my case to tribunal and won. This time I have physical conditions to add to the list, which might even get me the mobility element of PIP as well as the daily living. It’ll only be based – as it always has been – on what the doctors say, even if government out-sourced assessors think they’re better qualified than a GP and other specialists, and I have to waste more of taxpayers’ money with another tribunal.

I fear the whole process, and the last two made me more unwell than I am. It’s a process designed to wear the applicant down, it’s about six months away, and will last at least six months more. It’s nice to think I might hold it together over the coming year, with the help of those still around, real and virtual.

My blog is a reflection of me on the other side of the screen. It’s nice to have people looking in and along for the ride, as I come back every now and then to address the grief, a phantom in my head. The writing desk is a dressing table, where I get ready for the next part: Tomorrow.

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Snakes and stepladders

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It was by strange coincidence that I walked into a lost property office when I myself was lost. As I leaned on the counter, I remembered having the thing I’d lost, but not what it was. I rested my head on my hand and my elbow slipped, banging my head on the counter, and then I realised what it was: I’d lost my memory. I’d been self-censoring for too long, with so much stuck inside me.

Royal PythonA royal python

While the fiction writer was away, things had been happening in the real world, and one such happened on Friday, when I got a text: “Could you order rats on the internet please?” It was my mum, and in my family, this is a normal event. It also allows me to tell a story of my life, as I step back into writing…

Long ago (in 2010), after my marriage had broken down through my drinking, I lived in Bexley. I was still running a print management business, and I had a nice flat in an old manor house, with a heated swimming pool in the garden. The kids would stay with me at weekends, and so it was on the eldest’s seventh birthday. He asked if we could have a party, but I wasn’t sure how many of his friends would make the journey, and feared a deflated son. So I offered to buy him something with the money I’d otherwise have spent on a party, specifically a snake.

At the time, I was volunteering with a reptile rescue centre, and although snakes thrive in captivity, are cheap and easy to keep (after the initial outlay on housing and an actual snake), people were still naïve. Most of our guests were snakes and there were three main reasons for them becoming homeless: Their size, their diet, and their longevity.

Among the collection was a 12-foot Burmese python, which could potentiallly grow twice as big. She’d been bought as a yearling at about three feet, and the owner didn’t know some constrictors could grow that big. Most snakes feed on rodents, which can be bought frozen in bulk (you need a zookeeper’s license to feed live prey, it’s inadvisable to feed a captive-bred snake live food, can be inhumane for the prey, and a risk to the snake if the prey turns). So if you’re squeamish about having dead rats next to your frozen pizza in the freezer, perhaps best not to have a snake. And they can live for 30-40 years or more.

We had half a dozen or so royal pythons in the collection, which are relatively small (5-6 feet maximum) and easy to keep, but they’re secretive and can be fussy feeders. So the talking point in the room isn’t so much the snake, more a nicely decorated vivarium.

I could write reams on snake husbandry, breeding and minor veterinary treatments (I filed a paper at The Zoological Society of London, on treating snakes with scale mites), but a personal blog is not the place to learn about keeping snakes. Anyone considering keeping snakes should thoroughly research the subject, certainly more than most of our donors had.

I’d work with the rescue centre some weekends, and the kids enjoyed coming with me, because they’d learned a lot about snakes through me and were fascinated. Mostly we’d go to local and school fêtes, where we’d show the snakes (and a couple of lizards), engage with the curious, and educate the willing. It was mainly dispelling myths: Snakes aren’t cold and slimy, most are not venomous (certainly no constrictors), and very few bite in any case. In general, they’re placid, inquisitive creatures, and it was always a joy to witness someone’s first ‘Snake moment’.

On at least one occasion, I’d had a lady moved to tears. It was her 40th birthday, and she’d asked if she could learn about snakes. I happened to be free, so I sat down with her and a royal python at a table, and I answered her questions. She confided that she’d been not so much frightened as nervous about snakes, because she knew so little. At the end of the meeting, she held a five foot royal python in her hands and started crying. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. I must admit, that caused me a bit of a moment too, having helped someone overcome a common, pre-conditioned repulsion of an unfairly maligned creature, so that they could better understand it.

There was amusement too, like when we were at an event on Blackheath during the London Olympics, and I was charged with Alexa, the aforementioned 12-foot Burmese python. The Burmese is a fairly stocky snake, and pythons are constrictors, so they’re heavy on muscles. A snake of her size weighs in at around 25kg, which you’re very aware of when you’ve got one draped around your shoulders. Like most snakes, she was inquisitive too. To her, I was a warm tree. For me, it got tiring, so I’d let her down on the grass to give myself a rest.

We’d displayed signs around our reptile enclosure, clearly stating ‘No small dogs’, and as Alexa was stretching herself on the ground, I spotted an old lady with a toy ‘dog’ (the kind which would fit very easily down a large python’s throat). “Excuse me, madam,” I said politely, and pointed to a sign.

Oh it’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the snake’s food, “he’ll only lick you.”

That’s very nice madam, but my snake’s tongue is flicking because it sees food…” I picked up the snake, the rat licked my foot, and I resisted the urge to kick it.

The point is, snakes are fascinating creatures and totally undeserving of all the myth, suspicion and ignorance surrounding them. Generally speaking, kids are for more into snakes than grown-ups, perhaps because our greater general understanding of them isn’t shrouded in so much superstition as a generation or two ago. For at least the last 30 years, all snakes bought by the home enthusiast have been captive-bred, and there’s a large conservation scene among those who study and keep them.

I’ve been fascinated by snakes ever since a reptile breeder visited my primary school in 1977 (when I was seven), and my children have inherited the passion from their part-reptilian parent. I suspect my parents have snake DNA too, and that circles me back to the beginning of the story and that text from my mum.

So I got my son a royal python for his seventh birthday. My ex-wife wasn’t so keen, so I had the snake at my place, but he was very much my son’s project. The snake moved with me to Sidcup, where I lived for two years after Bexley. Eventually of course, I drunk everything away and I ended up back at my parents’, with a snake.

When I had my breakdown and all sorts of people were supporting my parents, the reptile rescue centre asked if they’d like them to take the snake. But they declined. The snake belonged to their grandson, so they wanted to keep him in the family. They paid me what I’d paid for the snake and the whole set-up, to give me money to stay afloat, and the arrangement was that I’d buy him back when I got myself sorted out.

I’ve lived in my studio for almost two years now, I have a rolling tenancy, and therefore the nearest I’m ever going to get to a permanent home. But ever since we started talking again after I’d sobered up, my mum (who’s 73) and dad (76) will not sell the snake back, not through any concern for his well-being, but because they’re so attached to the little guy. For now I just order his food for mum and dad’s freezer.

People think I’m weird, and I am. But don’t blame the parents.

A many-mirrored mind

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I did a lot of thinking while I was waiting for news of my dad and not writing much, and I let myself go a bit, mentally. I got fed up with being the only person around here who cooks, does the shopping, pays the bills and cleans the place. I live alone, but still…

Kusama-Yayoi_Infinity-Mirrored-Room-Hymn-of-Life_2015_1500x1000-980x653Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Hymn of Life, 2015

The sole occupant of a life can have a tendency to over-think things, especially when so many other people inhabit their mind. When that person has mental health issues, those can become self-pollinating. And when the person’s a writer, some might think that makes things easier. It does and it doesn’t, because writers think more than average, they have a reputation to maintain in reporting those thoughts, and the more they think about the right prose, the more they’re obliged to think. It’s the proverbial vicious circle and yet another paradox in the life of the writer with depression. Sometimes I feel I should just go out and meet people. Then I remember, I don’t like many people and I don’t enjoy going out. My life, in a box, which I decided to take a look around.

Writing is a very lonely game anyway, more so when you’re someone with many different people in your mind. Some might think a writer with depression is a sadomasochist, but when you have anxiety too, it’s the only way to live. If I’m to keep living, I have to keep writing. It’s a self-propagating paradox.

I thought I’d found some kindred spirits in a few Facebook writing groups, then the one I favoured closed down because of an admin’s family bereavement, and paranoia tells me everyone I touch turns to shit. It’s a reflection of my real life, where I erect barriers to prevent anyone getting too close. Sometimes I let the barriers down but end up kicking people away, when they subsequently invade my personal space, inadvertently because they’re on my mind.

Some of the writing groups were challenge-based, and I’m stuck for words as often as I have too many to put into decent prose (very much the manic depressive, bipolar writer). Sometimes I set my own targets, and have nowhere to put them, so they go here. When I’m working freelance, I’m in charge, and with so many people in my head, it’s easy to find one to boss. Other times, I’m lost for words, let myself down, and simply lost in life.

I wouldn’t return to drink, as I never found myself there, only when I dried out. As well as losing all that I did before (and more, and on a more permanent basis), I’d lose this whole new brain function I’ve found, but which sometimes drives me to distraction or to switch off. I do have a drink to hand (I’m a functioning alcoholic), but I prefer a nice cup of French coffee and a croissant, sometimes with a cannabis joint, and I think some more. Sometimes, good fiction will arise, and others a full-blown existential crisis. My life in the mirror.

I’m 48 this year, which means I’ll have caught up with Douglas next year. I was born in May 1970, and it occurred to my reflection that in 2020 I’ll be entering my seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, married the noughties, and finally found myself in the teens. It was 2013 when I found myself on the streets, before becoming counsellor and friend to all those young strays who found the squat.

Last time I checked, there were only two or three people who truly understand real me: My kid sister, Courtney, and a couple of the young girls who adopted me in lieu of a father figure in their lives when I was on the streets. These are the ones the plastic police and defective detectives used to wind themselves up about, as they imagined what went on in the squat (if they’d bothered to come in themselves, like the real police used to, they’d be wiser). Those were mutual adoptions, which have proven symbiotic since. We remained friends, because I let my barriers down and didn’t feel a need to raise them again. These are friends I trust, because they placed so much trust in me, and who can read me as I can them. Courtney can listen to a list of perceived issues I have – A, B, and C – then suggest option D: That I’m being paranoid, and invariably she’s right. Those girls can somehow get me to look inside myself in a different way to my everyday.

There are barriers, of course, even if what we were once suspected of is legal now the girls are older. They’re still young girls, so it’s a one way street: I give a shit about them, but I don’t intrude on their private lives unless they bring them to me. It’s a life of ‘Do not disturb’ (I’m disturbed enough already), but I welcome the odd disturbance.

In writing, my peer groups are reflective of real life too: Never a core member of many things, but on the fringes of many more. Cyrus Song was me reaching out, when every day of guilt laden sobriety might cause a less occupied person to lapse. It’s a good job I have writing, but I need people to read, so that more might understand me and help me understand myself. All writers hope that what they do is worthwhile.

Barring another wobble, I have a lot lined up, if I can keep my mind on the job. I’ve got some short stories planned, and some already drafted or in process; I have a list of research projects for later blog posts; and now that dad’s on the mend, I can get back to the family history book, albeit now with a revised publication schedule.

I’m still a bit lost, in life and in writing, but both are the same, just as my real and virtual lives blur and merge. So I carry on in my writer’s life because what other is there? I seem to thrive in captivity, like a snake.

I was interrogating Captain Mamba, as I’m plotting Cyrus Song II as well. We discussed the snakes’ future plans for humanity, and as today is Valentine’s, we discussed snake and human birth control. We agreed that we both already employ an effective method: Being who we are as people.

The mind is a many-mirrored room when you look around it, then just write it down as you see it and read it back.

Breaking the mind cycle

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I said I’d be more open when I could, and now I can write more honestly about a few things which have been keeping me quiet lately…

Break the cycle

Top of the vox pops has been my dad, who’s been unwell. He’s home now and all the evidence suggests he’s much better. Long story short, he was having problems with his memory and sense of direction. It had been a process so gradual that it was barely noticed by those closest to him, until one night when he went missing.

A keen and able driver with 60 years of incident-free motoring behind him, and a man who would invariably be early for any meeting, appointment or gathering, it was unusual for my dad to be late home. So when my mum phoned me to say dad was an hour late, alarm bells began to toll in the distance.

I spent at least ten minutes on the phone to mum, during which she kept popping outside the front door to see if he was coming up the road. It was getting dark and it was a Saturday. Dad was never keen on driving in the dark, and there’d be something on TV he’d scheduled to be home for (probably a transport, engineering or emergency services documentary), now finished.

Eventually I phoned the police, and in doing so, I knew I was robbing my dad of his main liberty: his car and the freedom to drive it. I was also taking away my mum’s ride, and their means of visiting me and others. I asked mum several times if I should grass the old man, when there might be a perfectly valid reason for him being late, but none seemed likely. I knew – and I told mum – that as soon as I reported dad missing, the police would put out an alert, dad would trigger an ANPR camera and probably get a TPAC by three fed cars (I watch a lot of police procedurals myself). After a couple more checks on his whereabouts outside, she agreed, better that than a starring role in 24 Hours in A&E.

As it turned out, it wasn’t that dramatic. Dad did indeed trigger a camera, and was soon lit up by blue lights from behind. He pulled over to let an emergency vehicle pass, then quickly realised it was him the police were after. “Your son reported you,” they’d said, so that was nice of me. One officer then drove dad home in his car, tailed by her colleague in the Battenberg. I found this all out when dad phoned me when he got home, to thank me for getting him there. But I knew there’d be fallout.

Dad’s 75, so his slight doddering might have been put down to simple ageing. But when it became life-affecting, thoughts turned to senility and degenerative neurological conditions. I’d been aware of his ongoing decline when I reported him, and dad’s health had been one of the police’s concerns. He was at the consultation stage at the time, but it was serious enough for him to have to surrender his driving license, for his own safety (and that of others). I felt like shit.

Further tests and scans revealed a build up of fluid around dad’s cerebellum, causing pressure on his brain. Dementia couldn’t be ruled out, but it was likely that relieving the pressure would restore his cognitive functions. This was at the end of last year, so any treatment would be in the new year. I’d displaced my whole family over Christmas, as my dad was the only one with a car. Everyone was going to have a shit Christmas, because of me.

Early this year, dad had the first of two operations, initially to drain the build up of fluid around his brain stem. Later he may need a stent, but the first procedure was a success. Very soon after, dad regained a lot of himself, and he was reading, watching TV, and even got some fine-detail colouring books. It was quite incredible to witness someone return so suddenly from something which had been so gradually debilitating. Then it all went tits up.

Just a few days after returning home, dad was hit with an infection, specifically at the site where the excess cerebral fluid had been drained (he’d had a spinal tap, after all). Infections are never welcome interlopers, but the ones who attack the brain and central nervous system can be particularly worrisome. Earlier dad had been picked up by a police car, now he was being carted away in an ambulance (to the best of my knowledge, my parents don’t play with matches).

Dad was in hospital for three weeks and I didn’t see him once. It would be a five-stage journey for me, by public transport or taxi. Social anxiety aside, I simply couldn’t afford it, and I had no-one to give me a lift. But in some respects, I’m glad I stayed away, if only to witness my parents becoming much closer. Mum gets free travel, so she was at the hospital every day and I spoke to her as regularly as I thought appropriate, caring, but at the same time, not wanting to be in the way. Now dad’s home, where he can recover quicker, and after 50 years of marriage, him and mum are still very much in love.

I’m told I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking my dad’s liberty, and that I’m not to blame for his ill health (his cognitive decline brought on by my breakdown and subsequent conduct), so I must just be paranoid.

Paranoia breeds and cross-pollinates my other neurological inflections, anxiety and depression, and together they form the unholy trinity in my mind, which many others suffer. I live alone and I’m left alone, so few have to suffer me.

I’m an alcoholic, who lives with a guilt complex. I could probably get utterly pissed and get away with it, and no-one would notice because few call or visit. But I made this situation, by not wanting anyone too close, so if I lapsed, I’d be the only one who noticed.

It wasn’t because I lapsed in anything other than myself, that this blog has been less dynamic than usual lately. Now that I have my greatest fear – that of losing my father – lessened, I can start to make plans again. Among those plans are to write more, so that I’m less alone now that my mind isn’t so tied up with myself.

Like my dad, it’s like I can hear myself again. I hope others can too.

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.

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.