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Chaz'z Blog

Saturday, November 30, 2002

Can there really be a conspiracy, to make me giggle in public at the most ungigglesome material? One would have thought not, but the evidence is mounting.

Here we are in mid-firestrike, I'm in the library, and I pick up a sheet of small-print warnings from the Tyne & Wear Fire Authority. Exercise strict vigilance, it says, and take the following actions. There's about twenty of them. Under 'Prevention: Cooking', it says 'Never put food in a chip pan.' Honestly, it really does.

Meanwhile, I had a very happy day in Sunderland, introducing two of the nation's finest, sculptor and artist, Colin Wilbourn and Bryan Talbot. We walked the (sculpture) walk and talked the talk for Bryan's amusement, while he took photos in the fog. Then we lost Colin - damn that fog - and went to the pub instead and drank Jarrow bitter; and thence back to Bryan & Mary's house, and out to Café Spice for dinner and back to the house again and there was wine and whisky all around the food and things just got foggier and foggier.

This morning Mary gave me a couple of baby fernlets plucked from the mother-fern; I have tucked them gently into beds of compost, and I confidently expect them to curl up and die forthwith, but I may be unduly pessimistic. Just that Mary's never managed to keep 'em alive, and Mary is my touchstone in all gardening matters. She doesn't know this, but she has been ever since she advised me to mist my chillies when they were refusing to set fruit. So I did, and they were fecund thereafter. Besides which, her garden's gorgeous. So is the house, actually: there's always something to look at. Often two or three somethings, placed together in an unlikely but pleasing combination. Artists, eh?

So I came home tired but fizzy, and all the way home was thinking how I really needed to start on the next section of what I hope will be my next novel, but I've been holding back a bit because a small part of me wants to tear up everything I've done and start again; so instead I started writing the novella for Pete Crowther,which turns out to be a ghost story. I did briefly think of writing it like this, as a weblog, live on the net, see if that was interesting for either party, me or you - but hell, why make myself more vulnerable than I am already? Writing is all about peeling your skin off, but you don't have to hang it out in public until it's scraped clean and tanned and prettied up a bit. No need to do it freshly, strip by bloody oozing strip. No need at all. No, no...

Posted by Chaz at 11:01 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Oh, joy. I've just tested and proved Zeno's paradox, thirty-five years after a teacher first introduced me to it.

You do too remember; this is the one about the tortoise. If it has a head start and I'm moving twice as fast, I can never catch it up. By the time I've got to where it starts from, it's moved on another 50% of that distance. By the time I've covered that 50%, it's gained another 25%. And so on, in ever-reducing numbers. I will just never quite tag its tail. Allegedly.

So there I am in the kitchen, with left-over ground almonds and a jar. The volume of the almonds is significantly greater than the volume of the jar. So I pour the one into the other until the jar is full, and then I tamp the almonds down, which creates 50% more space. So I repeat the pouring, and do the tamping, and have 25% of the space still available. And pour, and tamp, and it is a matter of ever-diminishing increments but it must be obvious even to the poorest intellect that actually the jar can never quite be completely full, there must always be a tampability; and so it proved, and so I got all my almonds into the jar, and I feel that I should probably donate it to the Science Museum or nearest local equivalent (I guess that would be the Hancock, here in Newcastle, but actually I don't like the Hancock. Hush, speak it softly, but it's a disappointment to me. I have a friend who enjoys herself backstage with mummified heads, but that's another matter).

All this playing with paradoxes (I kind of want the plural to be paradoces, but it ain't; however, checking that, I find that there's a civet-like carnivore in Asia known as a paradoxure, as is the palm-cat of India. No trip into a dictionary is ever wasted) reminds me of a pair of boxes I used to own, the one inside the other. You could take out the one, and put the other inside it. Spooky, huh?

Posted by Chaz at 06:43 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Okay, here's another quick recipe for you, compiled from the ingredients of the day (what you have in your fridge) and suited to its purposes (not busy this afternoon but expecting to come home hungry late this evening). Slice two or three onions finely, and soften in a lot of olive oil; add plenty of garlic and an equally finely sliced scotch bonnet chilli. Now wash your hands. Seriously; scotches are hot, and you don't want even the memory of that juice in your eyes, or other sensitive areas. (Oh, and while we're about it, allow me to scotch a myth: the concentrated heat of a chilli is not in its seeds. In a fresh chilli, the seeds contain less than 5% of the capsaicin, which is the hot stuff. Most of it is actually in the membrane that binds the seeds to the flesh. Which you also tend to get rid of if you scrape out the seeds, which is how the confusion arose. Me, I leave it in. And there's absolutely no point faffing around with dried chillies to separate the seeds; capsaicin migrates during and after drying, so it's pretty much evenly distributed thereafter.)

Break in some mushrooms, add a couple of bay-leaves from the tree in the back yard, grind some pepper in. Add a pound of minced beef, and work it in until it's well broken up; meatballs are good, but coagulated lumps of meat are not. Add half a pint of good beef stock (I am led to believe that you can buy this, but don't see why you'd want to; make it, reduce it to a jelly, stick it in the freezer, takes up not much time and no space and you know that it's exactly to your taste, how you think stock should be) and simmer until you have to go out. At this point, turn the heat off, add a couple of chopped red peppers and put a lid on it.

Go down to the Lit & Phil, sign sheets for the Dr Who novella (it's very shiny paper and the ink takes forever to dry; at the Lit & Phil you can spread out fifty, maybe a hundred sheets at a time without inconveniencing anyone. If you can do that at home, you have a bigger home than I do), and then go on to your Chinese lesson. Just a normal day at the office, really.

When you get back, boil up the pasta of your choice, heat the sauce through, add salt if necessary (probably won't be, if you bought your stock) and then surprise the hell out of it with half a pint of double cream and a hefty squeeze of lemon juice. Honestly. Beef and cream, it works a treat in my book. (Okay, I know this is not exactly news, but hey: some things cannot be said too often...)

Posted by Chaz at 05:06 PM GMT [Link]

Spent the evening watching Crumb again, the two-hour documentary of a year in the life of Robert Crumb and his family. I'd forgotten quite what a strange family they were; his brothers made him seem almost normal. So painfully intelligent, so weirdly talented and yet so brutally dysfunctional - peeled straight from the notebooks of one of those surreal American novelists of family life. John Irving without the jokes, perhaps...?

This seems to be comics week, as I'm spending Friday with Bryan Talbot in Sunderland, doing the sculpture walk. I'd best not say why, as it's his project and not mine, and I can still be discreet when I remember; but it should be fun on Friday, and more fun later.

I do sort of wish that I enjoyed comics more, though. I'm a huge fan of Bryan's work, and that's not just because I know him; there are others too that I admire. But what is manifest is that I don't sit down with a comic or a graphic novel just for fun, not ever. In the end, admiration is not enough; and I always end up wondering just what the pictures are for, why they keep getting in the way of the words, squeezing out the text, what's the point when the pictures in my head are so much better anyway...? (Look, I know this is heresy and I'm sorry, I just can't help it, okay? Call it picture-blindness or something, there must be a word in Greek. I was having this same e-gument with a friend in France, and he asked me if I watched films with my eyes shut. Well, no - but I do spend a lot of time out of the room when they're on telly, listening to the soundtrack while I do something else. Or else I'm reading a book at the same time. I'm good at reading words, not so good at reading pictures, I guess. Films with subtitles are good, I can read those...)

Posted by Chaz at 12:28 AM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Just in case anyone out there thought that life was straightforward once you were established in a genre, that you simply sent out your work and it was accepted as a matter of rote, a matter of right - well, no. Nice letter from Gordon Van Gelder this morning, turning down 'Dragon Kings...' for F&SF. He did like it but he's got lots of fantasy backed up, and he just didn't need this one. Which reminds me - if only distantly, my ego is not this great - of a story I heard, one of the many versions of how & why the great library at Alexandria was destroyed. Allegedly, when Muslim forces took power in Egypt after the Byzantines were driven out, their leader was told of this fantastic collection of Greek texts and was asked what should be done with it. He is reported to have said, "If these texts support what we are told in the Qur'an, we do not need them; if they dispute what we are told in the Qur'an, we do not want them," and so the entire library was burned. This is, of course, apocryphal - no, worse than apocryphal, it's a downright libel. The library at Alexandria was destroyed a good four hundred years before there was any Muslim power in Egypt. But it's still a great quote.

Anyway, the Dragon Kings story will go elsewhere, and I will report as and when; there must be someone out there who wants a Chinese fantasy romance with added godhood. Meanwhile, the lovely Pete Crowther has asked if I'd like to write a novella for his PS Publishing imprint, a thing which I would adore to do, and which makes the second such invitation in a month; and my US agent seems to be joining my UK one in urging me to write one of my major novel projects on spec, rather than scrabbling around desperately for a commission. I still don't see how that would be possible, unless I do win one of the awards or fellowships I'm applying for, but the pressure may eventually get too strong to resist. I would love to do it; it's just that I also need to eat. See how we suffer...?

Posted by Chaz at 12:42 AM GMT [Link]

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Two truths, universally to be acknowledged: one, that good books are indeed better; two, that no man shall call himself a good cook until or unless he is a good pastrycook.

I once heard Marghanita Laski on the radio dividing all of fiction into two camps, literature and trash. I was, necessarily, outraged; what I do is neither the one thing nor, I hope, the other. The same holds true, by and large, for what I read. I seldom touch the classics; those are my father's territory, and old news from my schooldays. I do read what I suppose has to be called contemporary literature, the stuff that gets reviewed in the TLS and discussed in universities, but much more of my reading-time goes to genre fiction. It's not necessarily less highbrow, but it is certainly less high-minded. I'm always happier getting down & dirty in the gutter, whether or not I'm looking at the stars.

Every now and then, though, a book will startle me out of all comfort. In the library last week I picked up Patricia Duncker's The Deadly Space Between. Dreadful title, marvellous book. It may yet turn out to be a ghost story of sorts - it's busily playing with some of the archetypical themes: Freud, Faust, Frankenstein - but if not, no matter. It doesn't have to make the genre choices in order to make me happy. It's a wonderful novel, light-footed and various, disturbing, profound.

And meantime I go on baking. It's Sunday, and Gail's having a birthday tea this afternoon. The slow walking bread is in the oven (well, all right: that's the Yorkshire name for a fruit tea loaf, but how gorgeous can you get?), and the almond slices are in the bin. I've never been a good pastrycook, so I tend not to do it; I have never done it before in this cooker, and the third truth of the day is that you really do have to get to know your oven(s) and their individual temperaments, or indeed temperatures. The almonds on the top were toasted, the almond-and-vanilla filling was lovely, the pastry underneath was really not cooked at all. It needed a greater space beneath,I think; I was using the bottom of the small oven, and next time I'll try the middle of the big one. There will be a next time. I am going to get this right. I don't do good failure on the micro level, it worries me. The macro, of course, the grand sweep of things, that's a different matter. Out there in the world I expect to fail, I have a history of it; here in my kitchen I do not. Grrr.

Posted by Chaz at 11:47 AM GMT [Link]

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Oh, where have all the weblogs gone? Long time passing...

Nah, I'm sorry, I really shouldn't sing; but nor should I let so much water slip under the keel, between one log and the next (sing ho, for a beautifully accurate nautical metaphor! The word in this usage derives from a chunk of wood, or log, that was slung overboard on the end of a knotted line; count the knots as they tug between your fingers, and after I think twenty-eight seconds or thereabouts, you know how fast you're going, how many knots. Write it down, keep a record - and that's your logbook. Honest...).

Truth is, I've been writing an award application; than which there is no activity more uncreative, more deadening to the mind. Plenty of scope for jokes, of course - "ah, another piece of fiction, then, Chaz?" - but no, actually not. I find myself scrupulous on these occasions, punctilious to the point of obsession - and utterly unable to do anything more stimulating at the same time.

It's pretty much done now, though, and it needn't be delivered till next week, so I can take a couple of days out. So I'm cooking again. I'm doing a dinner at Kate's flat tomorrow, with a couple of other friends coming round and a small swarm of young persons. Happily, the young persons will have been fed before they come (Rule one: never cook for other people's children or cats), so I'm just going to win their everlasting affection with a couple of unexpected desserts. I'll make 'em a chocolate-and-raspberry pavlova, just because I can; and in the oven at the moment is a gâteau de Pithiviers fondant - basically an almond cake. The recipe comes from Jane Grigson's Good Things - as does the story of the other speciality of the region, the gâteau de Pithiviers feuilleté. This is another almond cake, this time in a puff pastry case; but the mixture is enhanced, apparently granulated by the traditional addition of a roasted and minced pig's kidney. Sometimes I think she makes these things up, just because she can. In English Food, bless her, she gives a prizewinning Chinese recipe for Yorkshire pudding, which not only includes an ingredient that no one has ever heard of (tai luk - apparently a Chinese herb, but none of my Chinese friends can help) but also demands cooking for 20 minutes 52.2 seconds, which has got to be a joke; neither ovens nor watches nor quantities are ever that accurate. She didn't make up the story, though; it's attested - along with the equally bizarre Yorkshire Pudding Boat Race - at Bare Ingredients.

Posted by Chaz at 05:39 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, November 16, 2002

This from my mate Trevor, the man who will - eventually, we hope - be filming Dead of Light, Light Errant, maybe even the problematic third:

'Don't know about you, but I have this vision of Lord Longford waiting by the Pearly Gates and looking at his watch and saying to St. Peter, "I don't know what's keeping Myra."'

Which I think is exact, except of course that they shall not need watches in Heaven; there are cherubim on little fluffy cloudlets, bobbing about and calling out at precisely regular intervals, "Eternity, and all's well..."

Which leads me (via Trevor, obviously, not the silly Longford man) to another FAQ, which usually comes as some variation on "Chaz, your books are so filmable to my mind, when are we going to see one of them on telly/on the big screen?"

To which of course, as ever in this business, the answer is "Who knows? Not I..." To be honest, there hasn't been that much interest expressed. At the moment, there are three projects running. Trevor has had an option on Dead of Light for the last few years; we have a script, we have a wish-list for the casting, all we need is cash. Granada TV has an option on Shelter; I believe they also have a script, though we haven't seen it yet. Obviously they have the cash, but TV commissioning is a curious business, dependent on schedulers: few slots, and many bids to fill them. Don't hold your breath. And the new one, the current fun one, is Don the recent graduate who wants to make a short film of How She Dances, one of my 'Daniel Fox' short stories. He's working on the script as we speak; updates as and when.

And so to lunch. Pipérade, my own variation: slice a small onion finely, and soften slowly in butter and olive oil. I usually add a chopped chilli at this point, but I like my eggs hot; it's certainly not canonical. When the onion is soft and sweet (let it take its time, don't try to rush it), add a crushed clove of garlic, then a sliced red pepper. Sizzle for a minute, add a couple of chopped-up ripe tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Stew gently until the tomatoes have amalgamated and most of the juice has cooked out, then break in a couple of eggs and scramble to taste (but not too stiff, please; soft is best). Serve on toast, with or without a couple of rashers of bacon, garlic mushrooms, fresh tomatoes...

Posted by Chaz at 01:10 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Actually, this is the kind of virus that I like. Just the one day of feeling positively Neanderthal, huddling in my cave and having to think on my fingers. This morning I slept so late that even the cats got bored and abandoned me; my body is still slow and achy (which I just looked up, to be sure it wasn't achey - and did you know that the verb was originally ake and the noun ache, as in speak and speech?), but my head is okay. Or possibly ochay. So I wrote a couple of pages and did my Chinese homework before lunch (good sausages, fried very very slowly as they must be, with chestnut mushrooms flash-fried in the sausage fat, on ciabatta from the Café Royal, which is the best bread in Newcastle). And I'm back on the good books, reading Firesong by William Nicholson, the third of his Wind on Fire sequence. I love this series; it's written for kids, but has both the ruthlessness and the restless imagination that Harry Potter so conspicuously lacks. There is, I think, nothing quite like it; put it somewhere in the range between Diana Wynne Jones (I'm thinking of her Dalemark books particularly) and Peter Dickinson, perhaps?

And now, while I think about another page or so before Buffy, I'm making a confit of duck legs. I have a menu in mind - pan-fried breast of duck on a bed of Puy lentils, with a confit of the leg - and obviously this has to start with the confit, way ahead of fixing a date or inviting guests. It's dead easy to do: melt plenty of goose-fat in a pan with a couple of bay-leaves and a sprig of thyme, immerse duck legs, be sure they're entirely covered and bubble them as gently as possible for an hour or so. Then let the fat solidify, and so long as the meat is well below the surface you can keep it as long as you like. It's an ancient way of preserving, for months on end. These days we don't need that, of course, we have deep freezes; beyond curiosity, my only excuse is taste and texture. After a week, it will be rich and melting. I've never managed to hold myself back longer than a week. This time, though, the plan is to confit six legs and invite four people to dinner. Demonstrably, this way there's a spare leg; I intend to keep it as long as I can bear to. I'll let you know what it's like, if I survive it.

Posted by Chaz at 06:04 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

From the Dept of Marketing Mistakes: I've just walked into Safeways, to be greeted by Darth Vader trying to sell me the DVD of a truly bad movie. Unfortunately, this Darth Vader was about five foot eight in his plastic boots and helmet; the helmet did amplify his voice, but it couldn't transpose it, and he spoke with quite an appealing light tenor, the poor boy. Miscasting just wasn't the word. Or maybe it was, actually, come to think of it... Anyway, he was persistent as well as miscast, so I took a breath and began to tell him just how awful 'Send in the Clones' actually was; and had barely got started when he offered his only defence, which was that it's better than its predecessor. Which is, of course, true - but lordie, what a truly depressing claim that is...

And so home, where I'm nursing a virus in front of the fire and reading 'Maxwell's Match' by M J Trow. It's a crime novel, about a comprehensive teacher transported into a private school just in time for murders to happen all around him; and it's another depressing experience, glib and smug of voice and intensely irritating. Here's a quote:

"Earlier generations of kids and most of the staff called Bert Martin 'Doc' after the boots. Maxwell called him 'Betty' after 'All my Eye of a Yarn and Betty Martin', but since he knew the Latin original and its meaning, everybody, including Bert Martin, thought it best to let it go."

I have no idea what this means, and neither does Google. 'All my eye and Betty Martin' is a phrase that means a lie; the presumptive implication here is that the full phrase he gives must be an English transliteration of a Latin tag. Maxwell may very well know that, but I do not; and when it comes to a writer boasting about his character's and therefore his own knowledge without deigning to share that knowledge with his readers - well, maybe it's time for that writer to step into the library with a glass of malt and his old service revolver, or literary equivalent. This is not my notion of the novelist's art.

Or perhaps I'm being ungenerous? It's all this aching and shivering, it can do that to a man. Not to mention missing my Chinese lesson, that grieves me more than life itself, and that's a lot of grief.

Posted by Chaz at 04:19 PM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Fish pie for tea tonight, I think: just so good on a nasty November night, and so easy. Mashed potatoes, made & enlivened how you like - me, I use a potato ricer, which might easily get my vote as Most Valuable Gadget, and beat it up with butter and a wooden spoon, plus whatever takes my fancy. I've got a few spring onions [that's scallions, to you across the water], which I might chop up and seethe in a little milk, beat that in for a version of what the Irish like to call champ. Plus lots of salt and pepper, of course. Then make a roux with flour, butter and a teaspoon of mustard flour (not sure why mustard works with fish, but it surely does), add milk slowly off the heat till you have a sauce, back on the heat to simmer for ten minutes till the flour's cooked and then break in some mushrooms. Add chunks of cod or haddock, fresh and naturally smoked (not the nasty yellow dyed stuff); add prawns if you've got 'em; add a couple of scallops if you're feeling seductive (they're not actually an aphrodisiac, but they might as well be). You can use wild salmon in season, but please not the farmed stuff. It's the marine equivalent of battery chicken, flavourless and greasy and full of chemicals and hormones. Plus the farms pollute their environment and spread disease into the wild population; have no truck with them.

Stir in a couple of anchovy fillets for depth of flavour, add salt and pepper till it tastes right, then pour the sauce into a buttered dish. Heap the potato on top, spread it around and ruffle it up with a fork, stick it under a hot grill till it's a dark golden brown all over, and then eat and enjoy.

Posted by Chaz at 05:24 PM GMT [Link]

So why is it that those times when I both need and want to be a hermit, to be left alone to work, are those times when there's a social rush? My life is not usually like this, honestly it's not; but I am trying to get some important pieces of work finished, I need stretches of days and weeks uninterrupted, and suddenly I can't manage more than half a day at home. Friday was York, Saturday was party night, Sunday was "Chaz, meet me in the pub," yesterday was dinner out at a new Thai restaurant with the friend of a friend whom I need to spend independent time with now that our friend-in-common has left town, and tonight is theatre night. A friend just phoned to offer me two tickets to Tosca, but alas, I'm booked already. Taking a small party to the Circus of Horrors. It's a pity about the clash; I'm looking forward to the circus in a spirit of cheerful idiocy (I'm anticipating lithe young people in bondage gear, performing extreme jugglery; I'll let you know how it turns out), but Tosca and I stand in need of reconciliation. This was the first opera I ever saw, back when I was at school, and I did not want to go. I was determined to hate it from the start, and succeeded admirably; was utterly bored and contemptuous in that way that only an overeducated sixth-former can achieve to his own satisfaction and no one's else. Love opera these days, but still haven't been back to Tosca. Nor, when I can avoid it, to opera-in-translation; I don't care how banal the lyrics are so long as I don't understand them, but there is something irrefutably bathetic about an exchange like "Where's your lunch?" "I've eaten it," when performed with great bravura and full orchestral backing. That is a direct quote, by the way, from the production cited; I've carried it in my head, with added sneer, for more than a quarter of a century. It's not like me to argue for obscurity, but in this case, please, I honestly do not want to know...

Posted by Chaz at 04:24 PM GMT [Link]

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Abusage of the day: I just found an official council notice in a public park, that says 'Please exercise your dog responsibly, etc; no motorbikes; no golfing.' No golfing?!? Okay, Chambers may allow it as a verb, but I do not. One does not tennis, one does not football; in my book(s), one most certainly does not golf. No doubt if I wrote to tell them, they would say that I had lettered them. Good grief...

I've just been pouring injudicious quantities of armagnac into my Xmas cake. This is huge fun, you can hear it sizzling all the way down, and I didn't want to stop. Oops. I've never baked a fruitcake before, so I'm not sure how it's going to turn out (I wonder if that usage actually derives from baking, from turning things out of the tin?), but everything that went into it was so good, it's hard to imagine its not tasting scrummy. I used Jane Grigson's recipe, from English Food; she's as much a touchstone for indigenous cookery as Elizabeth David is for Mediterranean. And yet, the only Grigson my local bookshop acknowledges is young Sophie. Shame on them, I say.

I went to a party in Sunderland last night, and impressed the hell out of my host's thirteen-year-old with the tale of How Chaz Met Tolkien. Shame on me, I say; I shouldn't do it, it's too easy. But oh, it is fun. And it gives me instant authority, so's I can move on to recommend other writers, other books, like Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy, which I adore and want the world to read.

It dawns on me (slowly, everything dawns slowly; I am proverbially dim) that I can use this space to answer frequently asked questions as they occur, before we transfer them onto the new FAQ page. So here's your first: my mate Richard asks if there will be any further news of the Macallan clan, first & last heard of in Dead of Light and Light Errant. The answer is that I deeply and sincerely hope so, but don't hold your breath. The series is a trilogy manqué, and always has been; volume three is called Night Fantastic, and the change of pun indicates a change of voice. NF is Laura's story: what it's like to love and be loved by a Macallan, to carry his child, so on and so forth. In the current circumstances no one wants to publish it, so it remains in my head, like an embryo in nitrogen. Come the movie(s), if ever the movie(s) come, then perhaps things will change.

Oh, and it is I confess a less frequently asked question, but just in case anyone is wondering, there were at last count fifteen unwritten novels in my head, waiting their chance. It's Zeno's Achilles paradox in reverse; by the time I get halfway through them, at least half as many again will have joined the queue, and so I can never, ever catch up. Which is the reason and the only reason I'd rather be immortal; choosing is brutal, which to bring forth and which to leave and let fail.

Posted by Chaz at 05:40 PM GMT [Link]

Friday, November 8, 2002

Happy daze. Yesterday I finished the first serious chunk, about fifteen thousand words of what I hope will be the next fantasy novel; one more such chunk to go (done his section, now I just have to do hers), and we can start showing it to people. Nervous, but nice. And I had an e-mail from a real live reader in the US, a thing that happens far less often than most people think; and news came, also from the States, which means that a favourite project of mine, that I thought was dead in the water, may be revived after all. So I went to bed quite bouncy, despite having sat up to watch a depressingly tedious film (The Human Factor, from Graham Greene's novel; even allowing for the seventiesishness of it all, Lordie, it was dull. And Tom Stoppard wrote the script, which I find extraordinary, as it lacked both the crispness of Greene and the wit of Stoppard. Nicol Williamson just looked bored with the whole enterprise from the start, and quite right too).

And today? Today I jumped on a train to York, where they have an annual lesbian book festival, organised by the crime writer Jenny Roberts who also runs Libertas, the women's bookshop in the city. Manda Scott is featuring this year, this weekend, and started with a lunchtime reading today in the library. I haven't seen Manda for altogether too long, since we got her up to the Durham Litfest in the summer. So I went down and walked in and the first person I saw was Stella Duffy, whom I hadn't seen for even longer, and didn't even know would be around. My fellow Murder Squaddie John Baker was there too, not quite so unexpectedly, as he lives in York. Jenny read, and so did Stella (from her story Martha Grace in the Tart Noir anthology, which has just won the CWA Dagger for best short story of the year) - and then, just in time, Manda turned up, having aquaplaned down from Glasgow through storm and tempest, by her own account. Popular vote and a ruling from the chair required her to read from the upcoming Boudica, vol 1 of a trilogy which is going to be sensational (published in February next year, so be ready).

Afterwards we adjourned to Betty's, where else? - Manda, Stella, John, self and the great Sandi Toksvig, where we sat in a window and improved the state of the world for a while; then they all went dashing off to other appointments while I who had none meandered slowly home, pausing only to discover none of the Outremer books in Borders (bah, humbug!). Checking the shelves in bookshops is one of those fatal writerly habits, much like picking the scab off a never-healing wound; it's only going to make you feel good if you're a bestseller already, at which point presumably you don't feel the need to look (tho' I must ask one of my more successful friends if that's true, if they do rise above it; it might be one of those utterly native behaviours that can't be escaped, like beautiful people constantly glancing in mirrors: not vanity, just reassurance, confirmation, it's still there...).

Posted by Chaz at 10:39 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, November 7, 2002

[Later, in the same part of another wood]

Sophie's had one pill, less than eight hours ago, and is already phenomenally better: bright-eyed, eating, purring like a very purry thing, doing all cat-things according to cat-occasions. 'Straordinary. Miracle Cat strikes again. I suppose one should say 'Miracle Vet', but she always makes me feel that it's all her own work, when she bounces back from death's door this way.

So I went to my Chinese lesson with a spring in my step; and came home, and cooked, and have been lying in my bath musing on the relationships between certain food groups, and how universal they are across cultures. Prawns and chillies, for instance: go to India, Indonesia, Malaya, Thailand, China, doesn't matter, you'll find the two inseparable. Even here in dull old England, we put cayenne in our potted shrimp (well, I do...). Or try this:

De-seed and slice a good red pepper (one of those long thin pointy ones that supermarkets stock these days; have no truck with the fat thick-fleshed tasteless Dutch stuff), chop up a chilli or two without de-seeding (actually, contrary to popular opinion, less than 5% of the heat of a chilli is in the seeds; the majority is in the membrane that connects seeds to flesh, but never mind that, just chuck it all in anyway) and fry in a mixture of butter and olive oil. What kind of chilli is up to you; me, I just picked a couple off the cayenne plant on my windowsill. Smugly.

After a minute or two, add a crushed clove of garlic and then break in some mushrooms (snap 'em into chunks between your fingers; much more fun than slicing, and far better texturally) and add a generous handful of peeled tiger prawns. Squeeze in half a lemon, and stir it all around for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat, season with sea salt and black pepper, and add a good dollop of double cream. Serve on spaghetti, and yes: do scatter with parmesan, by all means. There is a myth abroad that seafood sauces should never be seen in company with parmesan, but this is - no, let's not say ignorance, it's a misunderstanding, a post hoc, propter hoc fallacy. Italian cooking has two generic sauces, one made with butter and one with olive oil. It is generally felt that cheese marries happily with other dairy products, poorly with oil; most seafood sauces are traditionally made with olive oil; therefore most seafood sauces should not be served with parmesan. This one is so laden with butter & cream, there is no concern. Besides which, exceptions abound: the most famous of all Italian sauces, pesto, is compounded with both olive oil and cheese (sardo pecorino for preference, but a lot of people do use parmesan). The confusion still persists, though. I've been told in seriously smart restaurants that I shouldn't have parmesan on a seafood sauce, even where it was swimming in cream. Quiet, I say, and wield the grater, thanks.

Posted by Chaz at 12:21 AM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

I really should've known not to be so stupid. I said Sophie was living pretty much symptom-free; suddenly, of course, she goes down with lots of symptoms. She was booked into the vet this afternoon; all this day I have been hoovering, tidying, and making a Xmas pudding. Displacement activities at their finest (last time she had to have an operation, I reorganised all my children's books into alphabetical order...).

This time the vet says she has cystitis, and associated infections. So she's been stuck full of needles, and now we've come home with Dr Percy's Pink Pills for Pale Pussycats. There's a twenty-point instruction sheet that circulates the internet, 'How to Give Your Cat a Pill', that describes blood & mayhem and of course ends up with the pill still not down the cat. Happily, Sophie is a perfect being; we sneer at mortal troubles. I tease her cheeks, she opens her mouth, I toss the pill in and she swallows. What's all the fuss about?

The Xmas pudding, though: it's a wondrous thing. One of those where you feed a spoonful to people who claim not to like Xmas pudding, and they all say "Oh, actually, that's really nice..." and ask for more. I don't know whose recipe it was to start with, I clipped it out of a newspaper long ago and neglected to clip the author's name. If anyone can recognise the original from what survives ten or a dozen years of my playing around with it, do let me know; I hate good work to go uncredited.

The Unknown Cook's Organic(-ish)* Xmas Pudding

*It's as organic as I can make it; does anybody know where to get organic amaretti?

Half a pound each of: wholemeal breadcrumbs, and chopped raisins, sultanas, dried apricots
A handful of amaretti, crunched up
Ditto almonds, blanched and chopped
A couple of ounces of ground almonds
An apple, grated
The zest of an orange
Cinnamon, mace, cardamom, cloves, allspice
A couple of tbsps of serious chunky marmalade
The juice of the same orange
Four eggs
A hefty slug of armagnac, and a gill of old brown sherry

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Put the wet ones (inc marmalade) into another, and beat like fury. Then pour the second over the first, and mix again. At this point, make your Xmas wishes (NB - do not omit this step!) Cover the bowl and leave it overnight.

Next day, almond-oil a pudding basin, pack in the mixture good and tight, and cover with greaseproof paper. Put it in a big pan, fill with boiling water to a point halfway up the basin, cover and boil steadily for six hours.

Let it cool in the liquid, then rewrap in fresh greaseproof and foil. Store somewhere cool & dark, and boil for a couple of hours more before serving.

Posted by Chaz at 05:24 PM GMT [Link]

Ah, work: the cup that cheers but not (alas!) inebriates. Oh lord, take this cup from me...

Well, no, don't. It ain't that bad. There is still actually nothing else I want to do but write, and nothing else that I want to be than a writer. Sometimes, indeed, it still inebriates; I can get seriously high when it's going well.

But - unlike Browning's thrush - I never can recapture that first fine careless rapture. When I was a child, when I was a teenager, no one could stop me writing. 'Work' meant schoolwork, and I had no interest in it; all I wanted to do was write. Stories, poems, plays, unfinished novels - I was positively a fountainhead. Then suddenly I was eighteen and getting paid for it, it had become work, and work was always the thing that I avoided. This is classic, of course: when it was forbidden fruit, it was joyous, but now that it's a duty, it's a pain. After twenty-five years, the fountainhead has dried to a reluctant trickle, and my avoidance strategies are legion and legendary.

Including, of course, this weblog. This isn't work, I don't get paid for it, so it's fun. And I get to play with a new word processor, so it's useful fun. [More of that anon: Linux is another theme, along with throwing rocks through Windows.] And to some extent it will stand as a record of my work this winter, what I'm doing and what I'm trying to do, where I am as a writer and where I hope to go. All of this is, or should be, good. Just so long as it doesn't induce me to neglect the thing itself, the work that this is meant to record.

So where am I, and what am I doing? I've just finished a short story, a foot in the door of a long-term project that will seek to unite contemporary Taiwan, historical China and all the myths and folk tales of that culture. The story has gone in two separate directions, to Norwich as part of an application for a year's fellowship at UEA and to America to see if F&SF will like it. I'm not expecting a positive response from either, but we'll see.

I've also just finished a foreword to a Dr Who novella from Telos. I was originally invited to write one of their novellas, but to be frank I don't know enough about the good Doctor to feel confident in that universe; besides, I've never really seen the fun in working within someone else's creation, I'd rather play with my own ideas. But then this piece turned up with a very Chandleresque feel to it, and David Howe asked if I'd like to introduce it. I really only said yes because I hate saying no, but I am so glad I did, because I love the story, the voice, the whole package.

This month I'm mostly working on the proposal for my next fantasy novel. This is in some senses faute de mieux; I love the idea, I love the characters, I'm really enjoying putting it all together, but privately - just between us, folks - there's another book I'd rather be writing just now. Only that no publisher has yet volunteered to commission it. They'd all be happy to see it when it's finished - but it never will be finished without a commission, because I cannot spend a year working on spec. No courage and no imagination, this current brood (sigh...). So I just have to be a full-blown fantasy writer for the moment, and neglect the other side(s) to my career. Professionally speaking that might be no bad thing, but artistically speaking it's depressing.

I do still have my artistic, my private projects, and I will also be working on one of those this month, before it goes forward as my application for the Northern Rock Writer's Award. Again I don't expect a result, but I think just applying is important. The work is the worst-kept secret in Newcastle, my contemporary novel about FWAs (that's Friends-With-Aids) and their carers. It's called 'unplugged: or, The Physics of Forgetfulness', and it's also about quantum mechanics and our understanding of the world, how that shifts from one generation to the next, so that what I was taught as basic fact is now hokum and baloney. And inevitably it's about love and death and all that other stuff that my work, that any work worth its salt always is about. Why else would we be writers, except to tackle the great themes of life, which are the great themes of literature?

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

Monday, November 4, 2002

The one and only Thought of ChairCat Misha: 'It is impossible to be too fat or too furry.' Which I suspect is a thought that she thinks purely to irritate her sister, who is neither. Sophie is an invalid, in the grand old style: a bit like Aunt Ada Doom from Cold Comfort Farm. She eats like a horse and has almost no symptoms, except that she's skeletally thin and her coat is soft and sparse, like fraying silk to the touch; to the eye it's more like that mould that sometimes grows on old bread, grey and ciliate (which technically means 'like eyelashes', which is exactly right...).

Myself, I am certainly not furry and have not been inclined to fat since I was a child; my self-image is still of skin & bone, the body I had when I was seventeen, six foot two and nine and a half stone. Alas, these days it's closer to thirteen and a half, and not much of that is added muscle. I put on my smart winter suit t'other night, and the trousers were distinctly on the tight side. This does not happen to me - but I guess I'd better get used to it, because I like food far too much to diet, and I'm not even sure that I'm allowed to exercise, even if I were inclined to. I've been having rigorous physio for the last six months, to treat serious neural problems in my spine. Karen is very strict about what I may or may not do, and straying from the path of righteousness is usually paid for with pain. Late-night television is full of people who pay to suffer like this for the sheer pleasure of it; one of the things I've learned about myself recently is that I don't have a masochistic bone in my body. Many bones I do have, and Karen has probed and pummelled most of them, but not a one has enjoyed the process.

My webmistress can also be severe, when she thinks I'm wasting good writing-time. She was in doubts about my keeping a weblog, for exactly that reason; I assured her that I'd only play with this late at night, when the creative flow was ebbing. It's, um, 5.45pm, which is prime writing-time, and I'm not even talking about work, let alone doing any... [Exit, guiltily]

Posted by Chaz at 05:47 PM GMT [Link]

Sunday, November 3, 2002

So why do I want to write a weblog? (Sorry, but I can't call it a blog - not yet, at least, perhaps not ever. Ugly word...)

Partly it's unreconstructed vanity, I suppose, that indescribable pleasure of talking about oneself; but there are more serious issues afoot. This is an important and a testing time for me, and I would quite like to have a record of the next few months; a commitment to regular entries here could ensure that I keep one. So if I end up talking only to myself and about myself, that still serves a purpose.

More important still, of course, I can talk about the cats. And cooking, and books. Which, in and around the writing, are my principal pleasures - excluding friends, because I'm not sure yet how ethical it is to talk about my friends.

Trouble with being ethical is that it's almost impossible to talk sensibly about a writer's life - at least, this writer's life - without talking about friends. The wretched creatures are almost omnipresent, certainly whenever anything interesting is going on. This weekend, for example: I went to Carlisle to stay with my friend Susan, who had organised a reading by my friend Toby Litt. Is it ethical to say so, to talk about it, to give them a presence in my diary without their consent? I'm not sure; but I am damn sure that I'm not going to run around asking everyone I meet for permission to record their place in my life. It needs thinking about, but it needs a solution, or this could be a very dull diary.

Ethical or not, I will say this: that Susan made me cook. They all do that. Bizarrely, I'm grateful for it. At the start of this year someone asked me what I was doing for my birthday. I said I was having half a dozen people round for dinner, which would demand several days of planning, shopping and cooking. She could not understand, she could not be made to understand how this was a favourite way to celebrate anything. But it is.

Improvising out of a friend's store cupboards is almost as good, though. I usually come home with something worth remembering; this time it was a mushroom, leek and sour cream sauce for pasta. The leeks give just a little greenness to the flavour - not the acerbity of celery, but something more assertive than the complaisance of an onion.

Oh, and there's another reason for a weblog. What better chance to be pompous? 'The complaisance of an onion', for crying out loud...

Posted by Chaz at 11:23 PM GMT [Link]

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