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Chaz'z Blog

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Cyberspace is a happy place, full of rare and wondrous things. Like, for example, the most powerful navy in the world turning to piracy, in that grand old tradition that navies always had. And we're not even talking privateers with letters-of-marque, this is the real thing.

Until last weekend, if you visited the website of the US Naval Academy and navigated towards its military history section, you would have found en route a page warning against the evils of plagiarism. A little further in, you would have found a page about mediaeval castles, which had been ripped off, torn out, stolen entirely from the Outremer site written and run by Jean Rogers to promote interest in my fantasy series and the history of the period.

Bizarrely, the professor responsible denied any accusation of plagiarism, on the grounds that he hadn't actually claimed to have originated the material himself. According to my dictionary, plagiarism means 'to steal from the writings or ideas of another'. If I steal a painting from your wall, is it less of a theft because I do not later claim to have painted it myself? I think not.

Anyway, the Navy has sent in the cybermarines, and civilians can no longer access that part of the site at all. We are told that the page has been removed from their server; cyberwire and cyberdogs stand between us and any way to check it. I do love stirring up paranoia in the military.

But cyberspace is a grand place to grow your own paranoia. Jean refers me to 'GooglePeople', running as a demo on the Avaquest site ('practical text mining solutions'). Google is of course everyone's favourite website, but this is a curious development. You ask it questions, it gives you answers. You ask it 'Who is Chaz Brenchley?' and it is somewhat confident that the answer is Jean Rogers. Otherwise, it offers your choice of a couple of dozen writers, most of whom are friends of mine but none is actually me.

Developing this theme a little, if you ask it 'Who wrote Light Errant?' (correct answer, obviously, me), it proposes two of my pseudonyms, my former agent, a former publisher of mine, my favourite author of girls' school stories and another (different) bunch of writerly friends, half of whom it tags with 'Smith' as an extra surname (Iain Banks Smith, Graham Joyce Smith, Nick Royle Smith - I blame the confusion on Michael Marshall Smith, who comes next in the list and has of course recently discarded the Smith, for his totally terrific The Straw Men). Oh, and Bruce Willis. It's extraordinary how it almost defines me by omission, by punching all the way around to leave a silhouette of me for those who have the eyes to see it.

The game, of course, is to try to guess what connections it is seeing. Some are obvious - but Bruce Willis? The best I can do here is that I have described my novel Mall Time as 'Die Hard 4, The Shopping Mall - except that I forgot to write a role for Bruce Willis'. I guess I may have said that in writing sometime. And then there's Dick Francis, next on the list - and, well, he was married to a Brenchley. But if it can spot that, if it's looking for Brenchleys, then it does know who wrote Light Errant, so why can't it say so...?

Posted by Chaz at 12:43 AM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Whoops, a little slippage - sorry. Been busy. Checking proofs, reading and revising the opening chunk of the next fantasy before I posted it off to agents both sides of the Atlantic, amusing teenagers over half-term - you know the sort of thing. And, of course, cooking. I had people for dinner last night; I had been dithering all weekend between Chinese and Russian, and ended up cooking French: onion soup, duck braised in red cabbage, garlic potato purée and clafoutis. How classic can you get?

Oh, and I've also been collecting rejections. Didn't get the big Northern Rock award, which was no surprise at all, but I didn't get a small grant I'd applied for either, which cut me to the quick; and then the Dragon Kings story came back from a US magazine with an actual genuine rejection slip, which I haven't even seen one of those for a decade or more. I'm beginning to hear the sounds of falling between two stools. Professional writers tend to make their way either on the commercial bank of the river that is publishing (commissions, royalties) or on the subsidised bank (grants, awards, residencies). For a long time now I've been trying to swim between the two, but I seem to have ended up on a sandbank, neither commercial enough for the one nor literary enough for the other. Erosion, of course, is eating away at the sandbank.

But I've started writing a novella for Pete Crowther at PS Publishing, which is bringing a little joy into my bleak and dreary life. It's called 'Being Small', which seemed appropriate for a novella, and it's surprised me by being set in Oxford, at least so far. I promised Pete a ghost story; happily, I don't think either of us would actually be too surprised if it turned out to be a ghost story without a ghost in it.

Posted by Chaz at 12:05 PM GMT [Link]

Monday, February 17, 2003

I spent yesterday running a fantasy workshop for teenagers, down in Huddersfield. Probably the worst journey in the world, to get there: every possible train-related trouble barring only an actual crash, and it took the best part of five hours for a journey that's usually rated at two. It did add to my store of experience, though - first time I've ever known a train delayed because of a message from somebody's mum - and it was worth it, to spend the afternoon with a bunch of enthusiastic and talented kids. Reminded me hugely of my own self, thirty years ago: eager to learn, mad keen to write, utterly unrestrained. Unrestrained by craft, among other things - but at fifteen that's okay, that's fine, craft is a tempering process that takes years. And restraint is not always a virtue; for a little while I quite wanted to go back, to be fifteen again and spilling over with words, rather than eking them out as I do now. It'd be an opportunity to do it all again but do it differently, write different books, write better books... It has its attractions. But no, not really. I'm happy to stand by the choices that I made, the work I did.

Right now, though, I am getting to revisit work I did six years ago; that's strange enough. I'm checking proofs for vol 1 of the US edition of Outremer, now titled The Devil in the Dust. First time I've looked at the text since the UK edition, I don't reread my own work once it's published; and now I find out why. I don't hate it, I don't even dislike it - but I do want to rewrite it, almost completely. And can't, mustn't, am actually being very good and reading only for errors, not for revision; it is interesting, though, how thoroughly I want to remake it. Not sure I'd feel the same about the early books, or about any books other than these; just that you always make certain decisions at the start of a project, about style and voice and structure, and I'd be really interested to see what happened to these particular books if those decisions had gone another way.

It's also going to be interesting to read through the work I've done for what should be the next fantasy novel, now that I've finally finished the big sample chunk I've been working on. The question is whether I'll want to rethink those same decisions for this work, where I actually have the chance to do it. Even if it means rewriting thirty-five thousand words, and keeping people waiting longer yet. I'll find out later this week, once the proofs are gone.

Oh, and one joyful moment from those proofs: 'Heresy' had got itself Americanised. Into 'Hershey'. Oh, happy day...

Posted by Chaz at 11:21 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Went for a walk today with my old friend Simon. One of those serious country walks: over hill, over dale, thoro' bush, thoro' brier, all of that. Up and then down some exceedingly steep and muddy bits, to the endangerment of my corporeal coherence and the ruination of clothes, a deal of falling over being done. I tend to regard such days with trepidation; I like walking, I walk everywhere (being a non-driver and hating buses, I have left myself small choice), but I'm not big on heights and falls and anything that borders on climbing. As usual, though, I had a completely good time outside the worrying (it's a bit like advancing into the dark with a candle: 'well, this bit's okay, and this bit's okay, but who knows what lurks just beyond this little light...?' - the story of my life, actually, not just the story of a walk), and once it was safely over, did that thing of happily agreeing to do more, harder, longer...

And then I saw this poster for a film, called Final Destination 2 - and I have been trying quite hard, and I have so far completely failed to think of any title that could demonstrate greater contempt for its audience. It's like those fantasy series where a ragbag of characters come together to battle ultimate evil, and win - and the series is so successful that the author writes another, in which the same group have to fight, 'um, oh, I know, even ultimater evil, how's that sound...?' If 'fairly unique' is the heresy, these things, these objects are the churches built upon it. Final, ultimate, unique: these are words, they have meanings, and meanings matter. If we blur them so badly, we will lose the ability to say anything of any significance, and end up being able to say nothing at all. Ian Watson wrote a story, ooh, twenty-five years ago or thereabouts, about a race whose language is confined to a single word; I fear that we will go the other way, we'll have many words but they'll all mean the same thing, which will be nothing more than 'I have spoken'.

And okay, I exaggerate, of course I do, I do it for effect; but I am serious also. But - because I am a frivolous and superficial creature also, who is easily amused by paronomasia, or puns - I will take this chance to point out that Ian's story has one of my favourite-ever titles, 'On Cooking the First Hero in Spring'; and I've just been asked to submit a story for an anthology of erotic retellings of ancient myths, which gives me a chance to use a title that I've been hoarding for years, against just such an opportunity. I shall do it, and it shall be a retelling of Acis & Galatea, and it shall be called ''Tis Pity He's Ashore'. I thank you.

Posted by Chaz at 12:01 AM GMT [Link]

Thursday, February 6, 2003

At Chinese class tonight, we had our first encounter with grinding ink and writing characters with brushes - and the news that will astonish no one who knows me is that I am completely and utterly without a vestige of talent in this direction. My appalling handwriting should have been warning enough (even my mother mocks my signature: 'What on earth is that, how can it possibly say Chaz Brenchley...?' - which is a bit of a handicap when you're signing books. One guy famously took a signed copy back to the shop, to complain that some kid had been scribbling in it) - but it ought not to be so difficult to make a tolerably straight line with a steady hand and a bamboo brush. I have both of those, but the end result eludes me entirely. The teacher tonight tried to comfort me by suggesting that I was a high achiever frustrated by my inability to shine, where in fact I was doing fine for a beginner, but it simply wasn't so. A glance at my neighbour's work confirmed my own opinion; she was another beginner, and producing neat and steady strokes, where mine were shivery, irregular, sorry little things. It's that hand/eye coordination thing; I never did get the hang of that, except obviously at the keyboard, where I can type faster and more accurately than anyone I know, and in the kitchen - though even there I cut myself more often than is sensible. Logically that might suggest that I only need practice, but I don't believe it. Too long experience, especially with the visual arts; I had one of those childhoods filled with crayons and colouring, but I never did learn to draw. I'd like to formulate a theory that says there's something in my head that allows me to learn only those skills that are actually useful to me, as a writer and a man, only it's hard to argue with the suggestion that being able to write with pen and paper is a handy little trick for a writer, and I really can't do that.

Back to the kitchen, though. Chinese nights, I get home late and hungry. I am somewhat known for complex cookery that takes days to prepare, but on occasion, simplest and quickest can be best. Boil a pan of spaghetti, and flash-fry half a dozen large tiger prawns (I like 'em with the shells on, but it makes for messy eating; peel them first if you prefer) with slivers of garlic and chilli, in a generous quantity of olive oil. Pour the one over the other, squeeze half a lemon over the top and throw on a handful of grated parmesan. It takes ten minutes, and there is very probably nothing better to eat on the planet.

Posted by Chaz at 12:20 AM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

I went to the cinema yesterday, and was moved to the creation of a whole new word.

The film was The Kid Stays In The Picture; the word is autoproctology.

For those who don't know, the film purports to be a documentary about the life and deeds of Robert Evans the film producer. It's not in fact a documentary by any definition that I would recognise; it's an archive sequence of PR shots and newspaper headlines, with a voice-over from Evans himself which has all the insight and intellectual rigour of an article from Hullo magazine. Hollywood's fascination with itself - or no, let me say what I mean, Hollywood's predilection for sticking its head up its own bottom in smug fascination with what goes on in there - is already legendary, so I suppose its making a movie about a man who makes movies ought to be barely worth mention (and my own industry is hardly innocent in this regard - how many books can you name that are about writers, publishers or booksellers? Indeed, I've done it myself: my first novel, The Samaritan, features an ex-policeman who has turned to writing books. Talking of which, there is a website that catalogues books that don't exist; check out the Invisible Library. They haven't found me yet, but no doubt someone will tell). But when the film is so cheap, so complacent, so entirely without merit or significance - well, what can one do but commit neologism?

Posted by Chaz at 12:03 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, February 3, 2003

We went to an event, 'A Writer's Guide to the North', with a good handful of local writers (or a local handful of good writers - Julia Darling, David Almond, Margaret Wilkinson, Andrea Badenoch, Sean O'Brien) reading their own and other people's work, where it reflected on the region or how the region had affected them. We thought it might result in a debate about whether there was any such a thing as a northern voice, or a northern literary sensibility; in fact it didn't, but the question lingers irresistibly.

Simultaneously, the city libraries are canvassing for public votes to choose the book that best represents life in the north east, ahead of World Book Day. You can vote for anything, but they've printed a shortlist of twenty suggestions on the ballot paper, so it's a fair bet that the winner will come from that. I stood at the counter and ran my eye down the list, and I do believe I squeaked when I got to the bottom. Number twenty: The Samaritan by Chaz Brenchley. You could have knocked me over with a blini-pan; I didn't know that anyone still remembered The Samaritan. It was my first real novel, first book with my name on it, published fifteen years ago and long since out of print. It does still survive in libraries, though; I guess people must still be reading it. And it is the book most explicitly set in Newcastle. I think in fact later novels, particularly Paradise, are more directly driven by the physical and emotional presence of the city, but by then I was much vaguer about where we were geographically, I'd gone all coy about naming names. Too much trouble with lawyers, basically.

So: we come to the perennial question, am I a northern writer? In some ways, very clearly and obviously not: I'm southern-born with a southern accent and a southern education; my character, my sensibilities, my aesthetic were formed long before I moved to Newcastle (almost exactly half my life ago, if anyone is counting; this is a good time to take stock). On the other hand, in other ways, very clearly and obviously I am: I live in the north and leave it rarely, much of my work is set here, all my surviving work has been written here and you can't spend your entire adulthood, your creative life in a place without being influenced by its physical and metaphorical landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes (metaphorically all three of these are very different things, as they are in a literal sense also: metaphorical landscapes are hard and unchanging, seascapes are fluid and shifting, cityscapes are artificial. What more do you want, a map?). I could have written The Samaritan anywhere, set that story in any city I chose, though in another city it would have been another book. Paradise I could not have written anywhere but here; it's a response to places, people, buildings in Benwell, it just couldn't have happened elsewhere. That's how I pitched it to my editor at the time: 'Well, look, there's this little wooden chapel just down the hill from me, and an old Methodist church beyond that's been deconsecrated, it's where I go to play snooker; and then there are these guys who preach at the Monument every Saturday, and there's a Polish club round the corner full of WW2 veterans and their Geordie grandchildren; and the local kids are bored with breaking into houses, now they torch them after for the spark of it - and that's what I want to write about, all of that, life in Benwell,' and so I did.

So am I a northern writer? Yes and no. I am, because accidents of geography and romance brought me here, and it has always seemed to make sense to write about the places where I am; but I am perhaps fraudulent to claim it, because it is only accidental and if I lived in the south still I would be a southern writer, I would write about the places where I was and there wouldn't be a lick of the north in my voice.

Put it another way: I don't know. Define your terms, and see if I fit within them. I will go on as I am, regardless. (Oh, and I'm not going to win the library ballot. Catherine Cookson will do that.)

Posted by Chaz at 11:53 PM GMT [Link]

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© Chaz Brenchley 2002/2006
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.