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Chaz'z Blog

Sunday, June 27, 2004

It is supposed - by poets and short story writers, largely - to be a truism that writing a novel is the literary equivalent of running a marathon, all grit and graft and bloody-minded endurance. Which is all well and good, except that it suffers the slight drawback (for a truism) of not actually being true. In these two respects, at least. First, that actually you write a novel just the same way you write a short story, one page at a time. With, if you're me, very little more advance planning. If it resembles any kind of physical activity (and I'm not sure it does, but bear with me) it's much more like a walking holiday in foreign parts. You start out slow and uncertain; you take a few wrong turnings, some of which matter and some of which don't, some of which lead to delights and discoveries; some days you cover miles, some days tens of miles; and as you go along, you begin to work out where you want to go. It's a tale that grows in the telling, built around the landscapes, the enterprises, the people you meet along the way.

All this is in no way like running a marathon, which is all about training and planning and regularity, knowing your course and your speed and your diet and all long before you begin; and the other thing about a marathon (or at least it's actually a part of all that, but just at the moment it feels like a thing all of its own) is that you know just exactly where it will end. Some runs, hard runs, it might feel further than usual, but actually itís not. You come into the stadium, you do one lap of the track, you come round the final bend into the home straight and maybe it looks like half a mile but actually it's less than a hundred yards and you can see the tape and it ain't moving, it is where it is and that's just where you have to get to.

A couple of weeks ago I was chugging along with the novel, two and a half chapters to go and I knew what had to happen in each of them, no problems, just a matter of getting the words on the paper - and then a couple of new characters walked into the book. Bit late, guys - and I couldnít send them out again, theyíre just too good to waste. Happily I do at least have a second volume ahead of me, so they can play out their significance in that, I donít have to make them justify themselves immediately; but it did still add a few daysí work at this end. Sigh.

And then, Monday last, I e-mailed my agents with the happy news that I had a chapter and a half to go, ten daysí work, no more. And sent the e-mails and went for a walk, and by the time I got home again it had doubled to twenty. Not my fault, I just had some smart plot ideas that will pay serious dividends later - but it really did feel like there I was, running steadily for the tape, and the bloody idiots holding the tape are running off ahead of me, giggling, like itís a game of kiss chase. Grrr...

Apart from that, itís been a week of interesting gigs, where I wasnít really performing at all - hosting an evening of short story readings fused with soundtracks, interviewing G. P. Taylor in front of an audience, like that - and I suspect I ought to be talking about those things because they lend interest to the otherwise exceedingly dull life of a writer; but at this stage of a book I can see nothing but the book, and I think it shows. Ask me again in, oh, about twenty days...

Posted by Chaz at 10:27 PM GMT [Link]

Sunday, June 13, 2004

One of the finer and more amusing aspects to being Me - and you knew there had to be some, or why would I ever bother? - is that I get to observe my own behaviour with the same cynical naïvety, that same sardonic sensawunda that I bring to my proper study of mankind. As this, for example: that yesterday I went shopping twice, I watched a lot of cricket and the qualifying laps for the Grand Prix, I cooked a four-dish curry just for myself and made a farmhouse pâté and had a bath and read a book and still wrote two thousand words, which is more than my daily ration.

And wherefore all this frenetic busyness? Itís displacement activity, obviously. And given that Iím not displacing work, the natural question arises, what I am; and the answer is not far to seek, because my old friend Lellie is dead in Cornwall and my Chinese teacher is dead in Newcastle, next week could be a hectic progression from one funeral to another and I really, really do not want to think about that, so Iím not allowing myself the space to think it.

Actually, though, I think my own behaviour here is a microcosm, a metaphor for all of human history (if youíve got to think, think big...). Love and death are the great themes, in life as in literature; but the two things are almost the same thing, because love is really a displacement for death, just as everything else, everything less is. Whatever we build - families are the obvious example, but the same holds true from compost heaps to cathedrals, from embassies to empires, from roads to reputations to religions - itís all gesture politics, carving our initials in the bark, to leave some trace of passing once weíve passed.

And I still have two funerals to go to; and I deeply regret that I will end up going to one and not the other, and it will be the wrong one; and I really donít want to think about it. Back to work.

Posted by Chaz at 10:28 AM GMT [Link]

Friday, June 11, 2004

Another thing Iíve said before, I do try not to talk about my dreams, either here or in the too-too solid flesh. Our own dreams are fascinating, but only to us; other peopleís dreams are universally dull, except to them. This I like, though, for its rarity value:

I have a gig in ten days, where a bunch of writers will be reading their stories to a musical accompaniment. I have, I confess, been anxious about this, as itís a new venture with people I donít know, and anxiety is something I do well. So I go to bed, I go to sleep, and I have one of those classic anxiety dreams. You know the kind of thing - youíre on stage and you donít know your lines, youíre in an exam and you can remember nothing about the subject, youíre anywhere at all in public without your trousers. My traditional one - being a non-driver who has never learned the art - is that Iím suddenly behind the wheel of a car and having to make my way across a city. But last night, not. Last night was specific, it was about this very gig, which is unusual in itself; everything was ready, we were backstage waiting to start, and I realised I had forgotten my text. By this time it was slightly unclear whether we were in Newcastle or New York, but either way it was out of reach before the gig would start. Building panic, to that hysterical pitch where usually I wake myself up - but this time someone said ĎNo, itís okay, you e-mailed a copy to us, remember? Weíll just print that off, and weíre sorted.í

So when was the last time you had an anxiety dream where the problem was actually solved for you? Maybe I wasnít so anxious after all.

Except that that was last night, and Iíve just found out that actually they donít want me to read at this gig, just to host it. Which gives rise to a whole new level of anxiety, because of course hosts donít have texts. So now I donít need to be asleep and nothing needs to go bizarrely wrong, I can panic perfectly well as things are.

Posted by Chaz at 09:49 PM GMT [Link]

Monday, June 7, 2004

Iíve said before in these pages, how fond I am of Lincoln; let me say it again. I was down for the weekend, for a symposium (which, you will remember, means a drinking party) with the northern chapter of the Crime Writersí Association. It is not of course the north, but we are a broad and a flexible church, and we inch our borders outward at need. Or at whim, really. So we had a business meeting to be official, and a visit to the police HQ to be professional, and otherwise we ate and talked and drank and talked and hit the town while talking. It was great, you couldnít go anywhere in Lincoln without finding another crime writer there first.

Having done the tourist/cathedral bit last time, this visit I just shopped. They have good shops; I found a butcher that I craved, that I just wanted to bring home and reposition on the corner of my street. And I found a tea-shop like no tea-shop I have ever seen: not just dozens but hundreds of varieties of tea, and run by someone whom I strongly suspect of being an elf in exile, one of those beautiful young men who seem to walk more lightly on the earth than the rest of us. So we did some serious tea-talking - and this is me, please note, who has never taken tea seriously except in Taiwan, where you have to - and I came away very happy with a packet of Chinese white tea, a brew of which I am sipping as I type. He might have changed my life, I can see this becoming a habit (and he does do mail order).

And so home, to the last university business of the semester and then the news Iíve been dreading, that a long-time and beloved friend of mine has died. Sheís been ill for months, and the book and the teaching between them have conspired to prevent my travelling to Cornwall to see her; and now - having finished the one and missed the deadline for the other - I could have gone tomorrow, and so she died over the weekend. She always was contrary thataway.

Posted by Chaz at 10:48 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, June 3, 2004

Iím having a week off from the book. This is entirely not by my choice; with the deadline just passed and three, maybe four weeksí work still to do, itís the last thing I want. But too much other stuff has crowded up against me and has to be dealt with (conspicuously, I have fifteen student portfolios to read, grade and report on; and the little darlings have heard it all already in tutorials, so why do they need to get it in writing when theyíve had the mellifluities of my voice...?), and right now is the time that it has to be done.

Happily, there is beneficial fallout; inter alia, I can cook again, even if I donít have time to eat. Which means, obviously, cooking for storage; which for me at the moment means confit. I lay down duck in goose fat almost without thinking now, but I thought Iíd try something different. I had some nice thick slices of good pork belly (thank heaven for farmersí markets and organic meat), which is a cut I use often; I am a lover of fat, and the more people frown and mutter about cholesterol and leave it on the sides of their plates, the more I revel in it. Lean is fine too, so long as it falls somewhere in the range from pink (lamb and pork) to blue (steak). I am the entire Spratt family in and of myself, but for taste and texture and variety, give me good fat meat every time.

So there I am with this pork belly, and lard is cheap. I rubbed the belly with salt and bay and rosemary and thyme, and let it sit; then covered it with molten lard and left it in the oven on the gentlest heat for the longest time. Then take it out, recover the herby salty meaty juices from the bottom of the dish, put the pork back and pour the lard back over, let it set and top up with more so thereís a good inch above the meat, and leave in a cool place.

Then I start nosing around in my cookbooks, and discover that confit of pork is deeply traditional, I havenít invented it at all - except that all the books stress that one should use lean meat, leg or shoulder. O-kay. I think about this for a couple of days, buy some shoulder and start the process again, pausing only to take the belly out of the confit pot; this is partly so that I can reuse the fat (lard may be cheap, but so am I, and itís too nice to throw away, with all those herby flavours) and partly to test the belly by eating it, see how weíre doing here.

So I made a dish of Puy lentils with diced onion and celery and leek and carrot, and mixed in those herby meaty salty juices mentioned above; and I fried the belly slices in their own fat till they were golden and crisp outside and melting within, and then I tossed a handful of greens into the pan to deglaze it (does this sound weird? Trust me, it works; cabbage, kale, chard, any of these just soak up the fat in a pan, along with all its flavours) and ate same. And the consequence? I am scratching my head in bewilderment and staring at all these books, and wondering what is wrong with the French. Iím sure the lean-meat confit will be nice; I will try to remember to report back; but pork belly confit is just gorgeous, unctuous, divine, and I canít imagine why itís not a standard in the repertoire.

Oh, and talking of repertoire, another reason why I donít have time to write this week: weíre having a wee orgy of opera. Our regional company, Opera North, is doing a run of double-bills, eight one-act works over four nights; my beloved Gail has press tickets and will share, so Iím seeing six of them. This must be another candidate to rival Sidney Smithís foie-gras-and-trumpets; an evening at the opera, a few glasses of wine, and home to eat confit for supper. My days may be a grind just now, but my nights are not bad at all, at all.

Posted by Chaz at 11:44 AM 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.