Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the Rain, Babel, Dreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.
I like demonstrater pens (a ‘demonstrater’, for those who do not know – and likely do not care – is a clear pen allowing you to see the workings within). My first, and one of my daily workhorses, was a Lamy Safari Vista. I still use it a lot. It was relatively cheap but it writes smoothly, is well balanced and it has a fantastic fat clip. I prefer to write with a fine nib (I spend most of my writing time inside notebooks on the small size) but I bought the Lamy with a medium nib, because I wasn’t convinced it would be as smooth with a fine. I still don’t know if that’s the case, but the nibs are interchangeable so I might experiment one day, if I’m feeling particularly daring.
Anyway, I ordered the TWSBI with a fine nib, because I suspected quality wouldn’t be compromised, given the price. And it wasn’t. It’s butter smooth. It’s a lovely pen to use, and I use it most days even though I was at first worried about taking it outside in case I lost it. When inspiration abandons me, the pen becomes an object to fiddle with, and it does a great job then too. My pen, as you can see, is adorned with some attractive orange sections (the orange version has been discontinued, apparently, making mine not only a thing of beauty, but of rare beauty).
I like to watch the ink sloshing in the faceted barrel. The TWSB can hold quite a bit of ink (current load: J Herbin’s Poussière de Lune – ooh, get me.). The pen transmits its quality through its heft and smooth finish. It even makes a nice noise when you screw the cap back on… In short, it demands to be fiddled with. It even comes with its own little spanner and some silicone grease so you can fiddle to your heart’s content while you give your pen a service.
My only gripe is that you can’t really post the cap. Well, you can, but then you run the risk of hosing yourself with ink when you try to take it off again. The end of the pen has a piston mechanism that you twist to draw ink into the barrel. Twist it the other way and it forces the ink towards the nib. I guess the designers didn’t expect customers to want to post the cap, as it does mean the pen becomes quite large. So best to keep it off, but be careful you don’t lose the thing.
TWSBI also offer a similar model of pen in a mini version and recently released a model called the Eco, which gives you a competitively priced fountain pen. If I come across any of these items in the future I’ll be sure to post a review, but for the time being I’m happy with my 580AL in hard-to-find orange (the green does look good too though… sigh).
When did it begin, this interest… all right, obsession, concerning paper and pens (specifically fountain pens)? I guess as a writer you can’t help but be serious about it. After all, if you’re not a screen demon, it’s what you spend most of every day interacting with. I suppose it has its roots in my childhood, watching Dad working on his cryptic crosswords. He pens a mean block capital, my dad. Very precise and committed. He’d work his way through the fat stack of weekend papers, performing miracles on the Skeleton, the Azed, the Everyman. Once the puzzles were completed he would carefully cut them out of the newspapers and get me to address the envelopes. This I did, desperately trying to ape his measured caps.
He likes his stationery, and has often observed that he owns enough pens to enable him to open his own shop. I’m not quite that bad (not yet), but though I own enough notebooks to last me a lifetime and then some, my head never fails to be turned by the stationery come-on. That said, I’m not what you’d call a committed ‘spotter’. I don’t do smear tests on inks to find out how long it takes for a particular brand to dry out. Ink is wet. It needs time to dry. This I allow it to do. It doesn’t matter to me if it takes two, five or ten seconds. If I like the colour and it makes writing more enjoyable then it gets a big, fat tick. Feathering and bleed… that’s a different kettle of fish; such things irk me probably more than they should. As does a scratchy nib (although you can probably get a cream for that).
I have quite a nice little collection of inks, but I’m not a guzzler. I won’t splurge a fat wedge on a full set of Iroshizuku bottles from a Japanese website, however desirable they might be (I do have one: the ubiquitous kon peki, and very nice it is too). I’ve been leisurely acquiring the J Herbin range over many years, but I doubt I’ll complete it before the old rouge caroubier drains from my, er, sac (but I’ll draw the line at their scented inks, I think).
I thought, in addition to the usual posts I make about writing in general, I’d spend some time talking about the specific things that make it possible for me to do my work – from the tactile knurling of a Faber Castell E-motion Stealth pen, say, to the equally touchy-feely glossiness of a couple-of-quid Rhodia notepad – and how effective they are. Consider it a paying back, of sorts.
Please let me know of your own favourite brands and products; I’m always on the look-out for the next toy…
In the mid-90s I read all five of Derek Raymond’s pitch black Factory novels: He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright*. I’d been of a mind to write a crime novel of my own for some time, and had dabbled with the odd short story here and there, but I wasn’t sure how to attack it. Reading Raymond unlocked the handcuffs. His nameless, profane (but intensely compassionate) Detective Sergeant was the grit in the grease of the police force, but he ground out results, identifying with the victims and immersing himself in the psychology of their killers to an uncomfortable degree.
I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of police procedurals, and decided my rogue element would be an ex-copper with a weakness for missing persons. I wanted it to be gritty and grimy, harrowing and horrific, and Derek dark.
I wrote Blonde on a Stick in 2003, the first in a planned series in which my protagonist would come to terms with the violent death of his wife and the subsequent disappearance of his teenage daughter.
I struggled though, to find a publisher, despite the enthusiasm of my then agent. The rejections were full of encouragement, however, and one or two houses had almost bitten, which kept me optimistic. But it wasn’t until my wife noticed a Facebook post by Maxim Jakubowski referring to the news that he was overseeing the launch of a new crime imprint – MaxCrime – at John Blake Publishing, that I felt my confidence return. Maxim had known Derek Raymond; indeed he had acted as Raymond’s agent for a spell (and still represents his estate). The stars were in alignment, it seemed.
I was thrilled when Maxim bought Blonde for his list and my mind turned to future books. At last Joel Sorrell was on his way…
Alas, more bad fortune was to follow. John Blake is a publisher of repute, but its bread and butter is in non fiction. This first foray into novels lasted less than eighteen months before the list was cancelled. However, they had only purchased UK rights so it was not inconceivable I might be able to resurrect the series with another publisher. Luckily Titan Books showed an interest in Joel Sorrell towards the end of 2013. They agreed to publish two more books in the series, but they also wanted to reprint book one, albeit under a new title.
I was very attached to that original title, but Titan’s argument was that it didn’t quite sit comfortably with the content. It needed a more elegant name, so I came up with one and they produced a striking cover to go with it. I was happy with the decision (all three novels in the series so far are quotes from literary sources – William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare) and excited that finally, over ten years on from his conception, Joel would be able to reopen the file on his missing daughter.
I worry a little that people who have read Blonde will pick up Dust and Desire thinking it is a new book. It is not. It has been revisited, spruced up, modernised, but it is not substantially different. A brand new Joel Sorrell story – Do Not Resuscitate – set shortly after the events in Dust and Desire is included, along with a Q&A. Not that many people would have chanced upon the initial MaxCrime version – I only ever saw one copy in one bookshop and that was positioned ‘spine on’ – so I doubt much confusion can arise given that there was no worldwide or e-book release.
I believe the novel deserves a second chance and I’m grateful to Titan Books for granting it.
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
Extraordinary. Poignant. Awe-inspiring.
Standout track: Stay