Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Cheesewire bikini exposed"

"Cheesewire bikini exposed." Nope, I don't know what that means, either, but it's one of the search terms people used this month to find this blog.

It's been a year or so since I looked at what you use to get here, and all I can say is that you seem to have got weirder in the interim.

Let me share a handful of head-scratchers. I'll skip all the ammonite-related ones because, well, I understand some of those and, besides, you've seen many of them before. (For some reason, often with swords.) But I'm not insensitive to all you snake-stone lovers. Here's a pretty picture to make up for it.

Okay, on with the show.

"What to do after you get drunk"
It turns out you can many of the same things as when you're sober. Only not well. Yet somehow you won't care.

"English cream cake"
I wouldn't recommend this when drunk. Messy.

"history in historical fiction"
You would think so, wouldn't you? But how to explain all those cod-medievals in which Our Travellers stop at a snug wayside inn, drink nutty ale, eat hearty and savoury stew, and flirt with saucy serving wenches. Historical accuracy would argue for: ale, sour and stale; stew, either bad or spiced to the edge of intolerability; server, missing teeth and with a nasty skin condition. Just saying. This is why historical fiction leans more towards fiction than history. At least the stuff that doesn't make you want to stand under the shower for an hour.

"anglo-saxon porn"
There were countless variations on this theme--seriously, scores (sorry, this kind of thing brings out the devil in me), though no ammonites with Anglo-Saxons. This time. Given that early A-S didn't have paper, their porn would either be live shows or images laboriously carved into lumps of wood...

"battle taunts"
...which no doubt made them grumpy and prone to quarrel. Battles and their taunts are, as you know, close to my heart. My favourite is still this one I adapted from a rugby chant last year:
Your sister's your mother!
Your father's your brother!
You fuck one another
now we'll fuck you!

"despair of our own writers when heterosexual"
It must be tough to be a straight writer these days. No one gives you a lollipop.

"lesbian crucifixion"
But there's no need to go around crucifying people, just because lesbians can win lammies and you can't.

"what-should-I-read-after-stieg-larsson"
Three guesses and the first two don't count. Rhymes with: shroud, bloody but unbowed, utterly uncowed.

"fuck strunk and white"
Preferably when drunk.

"he did chest compressions on her fanfic"
I need to go wash my brain.

"never had good sex."
It's the period that gets me about this search term. As though the seeker has already given up. Abandon hope, all ye who...

"science fiction disco"
...ah, but you still know how to party!

And on that note, I'll stop. Time to get Hilding. (Though, wow, the sun just burst out, so perhaps I'll have to get outside instead.) Tomorrow, with luck (depends on how much Hilding I get done today), I'll be getting all ranty pajamas about clothes and clothes shopping. Oh, I have things to say!

Have a happy/gruesome/chocolate-filled Halloween.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Gorgeous autumn--colours colour colours!

Wednesday and Friday were eye-poppingly vibrant days here in Seattle. My friend, professional photographer Jennifer Durham, took some pictures of Green Lake that she graciously gave me permission to share:

Yes, that colour saturation is real. It really looks like that. Click on the image to enlarge and appreciate to the full. This, too, even the obliging cormorant:

I took a photo of setting-sun light on the brow of our hill. That is, I tried to, but the light is so evanescent at this time of year I think I missed it. Plus stuff like phone wires were in the way and as I was in my sock feet I wasn't inclined to go charging up the driveway to a clear spot. But for you, dear reader, here it is.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Me with an updo, and it wasn't even Halloween

I've been thinking about clothes lately, and was prompted the other day to search for a particular photograph. I found it, eventually (more on that in another post), but in the course of that search stumbled on two of the photos below, which I thought had been lost forever.

In 1994 Kelley and I were living in Atlanta. We got invited (long story) to the kind of party where we would usually be shunned: a gathering of the moneyed Southern political élite, at what used to be the Governor's Mansion, now belonging to a man who owned a bunch o' TV and radio stations. Every year, apparently, he threw a party for sixty or seventy people to fulfill all his social obligations. Everyone who was anyone in Georgia politics and media would be there. I thought it sounded like a great and exciting game: a right old Yorkshire dyke mixing with Southern snobs and pretending to be a Real Writer.

So we accepted the invitation, and went into high gear, approaching it as theatre: costume, hair, jewellery, makeup. ( I've always liked playing dress-up. I'm just not that fond of taking it seriously.)

The clothes were easy; it was Atlanta, after all. I found a crepey-drapey swishy champagne-coloured suit, complete with fancy embroidery on the waistcoat. (When they're made for girls are they still called 'waistcoats'?) I dug out some antique jewellery--that's 1930s jet around my neck. I don't remember the shoes. Or (shudder) the makeup. Actually, judging by the photo, I think I chickened out on that at the last minute. It was the hair that stumped me. For this kind of game, only a big pouffy southern updo would do.

I'd started growing my hair the previous autumn, after K and I got married. ('Why I Grew My Hair' is a long story. Perhaps I'll tell it one day.) Here's what it looked like by late spring of '94:

That's our friend John Beeman to my left. (He lives just north of Seattle, now. We like to keep our friends close.)

Anyway, as you can see, there wasn't a lot of hair. There was a bit more by autumn, but not nearly enough for someone inexperienced in the ways of girliness to find a way to make it go up and stay up. Way beyond my competence. So I went to a salon. They knew me there ("No. 2 cut? Yes, ma'am!") and understood that this was make-believe, a giant game, and entered into it with gusto.

The final 'do was used about 50 steel pins and so much hairspray that I think you could have swung me like a battering ram at the wall and not a hair would have fallen out of place.

So, the party was...southern. Every guest at the party was white. Every valet and server was black. Lots of political cronyism. (The Secretary of State was there, and a couple of other people you might recognise.) We ate goose (until it ran out) and drank wine (until I couldn't stand it anymore--nasty stuff--and persuaded one of the servers to raid the Big Guy's personal stash of beer) and and scandalised everyone present by waltzing together ("They weren't even ashamed!"), and then left.

It took about an hour in the shower to dissolve the gunk in my hair and fish all the pins out. And to feel clean.

Here's what Kelley looked like:

It was a velvet dress. An absolutely staggering beautiful colour on her. But we both felt so weirded out by the evening that neither of us could bear to wear the clothes again. We gave them to Goodwill. But if I ever find a dress that colour, I'm going to buy it for Kelley. Because: staggeringly beautiful. (And velvet feels delicious.)

What interests me about this whole affair is twofold. One, how costume can influence a person's stance, presentation and behaviour. Look at me: my face looks Southern, even my teeth seem different. Strange. And even though the Big Hair photo was taken only a few months after the Little Hair photo, I think I look a decade older and heavier--physically and emotionally--than I do in the restaurant. Two, I'm struck by how emotionally off-balance I must have been at that stage in my life to think that it would be fun to spend an evening pretending to be someone I'm not in the company of people I don't care for. It's something an adolescent would do--something young adults do all the time, in fact, on the way to figuring out who they really are.

But that's a whole other story. Let's just say for now that that party taught me a real lesson, with no more damage than an hour in the shower. And, y'know, embarrassing photos...

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Get yourself an education, for free

Wow, I've just read over on Lisa Gold's blog that the Paris Review has just made available 57 years-worth of author interviews. Here are snippets from three interviews from this year:

Ray Bradbury
"You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices."

R. Crumb
"It knocked you off your horse, taking LSD. I remember going to work that Monday, after taking LSD on Saturday, and it just seemed like a cardboard reality."

Norman Rush
"I must love big novels, because that's what I've written. It takes a while before you begin to breathe the air the characters breathe."

The number and quality of these interviews is rather overwhelming. And it's all free. We live in an astonishing world.

Also free: the brilliant interviews by Jofie Ferrari-Adler with agents and editors over at Poets & Writers. See, for example, this one with editor Janet Silver.

Go read. Get yourself an education. Free.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

If plots had smartphones...

Yesterday, I was thinking about the Aud novels, about what it would take to republish them. (They're all in print in some form or other in this country right now, but I like to plan ahead.) I'd have to tweak a lot of the phone/computer access stuff. It would be mild tweakage, though, because the information that really matters for Aud is based on the body, personal interaction.

Other writers, particularly screenwriters, aren't so lucky. Here's a nifty video imagining the connectivity of today affecting the movies of the past:



(via GalleyCat)

Note to writers: it's easy for stories to become passé when the plot relies on information delivery (and its delays and mistakes). Information interpretation, however, because its about character, adds depth.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Update: Hild, health, happiness

I'm still very tired, but that's about what I expected at this stage. The best thing I can report is that nothing unusual is happening. I am 'just' tired. I don't appear to be about to lose my sight or my mind or my sense of balance. I'm not being ironic when I say that, right now, I'm pleased.

Despite being tired, I've been working away at Hild. I'm pleased to report that I now have 700 pages: 145,000 words. My guess is I have at least 100 pages to go before I get to the end of this draft. But that's the exciting thing about first drafts: I honestly don't know. But I'm imagining some big scenes at the moment and couldn't happier if I'd been dipped in chocolate. (Or if, y'know, someone cured MS. Or if I won the lottery. Or if Salma Hayek walked through the door and her clothes fell off. Or--well, okay, there are always ways to feel more smug about life. But this sincerely doesn't suck.)

One major annoyance stemming from being so tired is that I might not get to carve a pumpkin this year. I enjoy doing that. I also enjoy munching up all the cute chocolate thingies that Kelley buys to for trick-or-treaters. (She usually ends up making two or three runs to the store. I smile guiltily and promise not to eat the most recent batch; I lie.)

So that's the situation in our house today: Hild grows, so does my waistline, and I'm hoarding my energy. The weather is wild: wind stripping the leave and whirling them up into a sky the colour of tin and lead, squirrels getting bowled along the lawn like little fuzzy eight-balls. All just the way it should be in autumn.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about books

Growing up, my family never talked about books. I'm guessing my first book discussions were with a librarian when I was eight or so, something along the lines of:

Me (pointing to some book with a juicy cover: swords, maybe, or half naked women, or--score!--both): I can't reach it!
Librarian (shaking head): There's a reason for that. Come back when you're older.

So I sighed and trudged to the history shelves and dragged out Gibbons' History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and lugged it home, and spent a happy weekend reading the lurid gossip of the times about assassination and orgies and war. (At least that's how I remember it. Please leave me my illusions.)

When I got a little older, ten or eleven, it was lessons at school.

Teacher (to class): Why do you suppose Tolkien used 'dwarves' as the plural of dwarf?
Me (and rest of class, in chorus): Don't know. Don't care.

I find The Hobbit much more linguistically interesting now but at the time I found it rather boring. But when my friend Gillian pushed a copy of Lord of the Rings at me, along with the endorsement, "It's really good," (Yorkshire-in-1971 tween equivalent of ZOMG! You'll totally, absolutely, right-now *die* if you don't read this!), took her at her word and gave it a go. And spent the weekend in a daze; I gobbled that book down as though I were a starving mongrel. But afterwards I had no idea how to talk about this book that had rocked my world. When I gave it back to Gill I managed, "You were right, I liked it a lot," then just stood there, gaping. I didn't have the tools for discussion.

Even now, I'm not very good, comparatively speaking, at talking about books. More accurately, I'm not very good at boosting them. Perhaps it's a cultural thing. In England it's Not Done to be enthusiastic about anything. Oh, I can rant until the cows come home about what's wrong with a particular book, but I can't rave about it for longer than a sentence or two. As I hate to use this blog as a bully pulpit, I rarely discuss books here at length--unless it's big enough to take care of itself, like Twilight or The Lost Symbol or The Strain.

However, there's a new review journal in town (well, about to be--more on that another time) and they've asked me to contribute. I have a couple of ideas for left-field articles (one of which I'm sure will get me into a lot of trouble, and so makes me smile and rub my hands to contemplate) but it has occurred to me that you, Faithful Reader, might have some nifty notions about what would make for good written (and later audio and video) book chat.

What do you talk about when you talk about books?

What kind of book-related discussion (anything, anything at all) are you hungry for?

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Defining genres

@Literaticat has posted a list of genre definitions. Perhaps the most useful paragraph for beginners is this one (emphasis/shouting hers):

PLEASE NOTE: YA, MIDDLE GRADE, PICTURE BOOK, GRAPHIC NOVEL, FICTION, NON-FICTION & BIOGRAPHY ARE NOT GENRES. THEY ARE CATEGORIES. "Genre" is a further classification beyond category. If I were to use a Biology class analogy (bear with me, I had to go to summer school for Biology) I'd say that in the taxonomic hierarchy Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Species, "Kingdom" is book, "Phylum" is format of book (electronic, hardbound, paperback), "Class" is category (YA, fiction, etc), "Order" is big-genre, "Species" is sub-genre.

Then she wades right in with some examples:

URBAN FANTASY is always set in a city, and features um... FANTASY scenarios. For example, faeries that are addicted to drugs and live in the subway system. Or trolls who hang out in clubs and impregnate human chicks. Or whatever. If you haven't written a dark and gritty fantasy set what we would recognize as a human-style city, you haven't written an urban fantasy.

I agree with many of them, though not all. For example, I prefer the Historical Novel Society's definition of historical fiction:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

There's also a lot left out. Where's lesbian fiction? Where's the Western? Novel of manners? The campus novel? And, oho-ho, The Great American Novel?

I think we could have some fun with this. We need both serious definitions (what exactly is 'lesbian fiction'?) and more playful varieties. Here's a Devil's Dictionary-inspired description to get you started: Noir, the horror fiction of the crime genre.

What genres (and subgenres, and sub-subgenres) would you like to see defined?

---

Edited to add: a flowchart of genre (via Eric)

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Friday, October 22, 2010

A beautiful painting

Alisha Baker (we have four of her paintings) has just posted her latest work, a gorgeous moment-as-stained-glass-window painting that captures the glow of a cherished memory. She also talks about the process, and how she had to be brave to make it work. all artists (visual, text, music) should take a look. Plus, it's, y'know, pretty.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

The niftiest font eva

I just made my own font, ngbyhand, the niftiest font eva:

Only it doesn't have much in the way of punctuation, just semi-colons, parentheses, question marks and exclamation points. There might be a way to exchange some numbers for punctuation, but I'm not sure. Anyway, I just wasted forty minutes of my life that I'll never get back. Still, it is nifty.

If you want to make your own, go to pilothandwriting.com (via GalleyCat).

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sex, again

In the Guardian, they're talking about literary sex. Most of the writers in the article seem to agree with Martin Amis that:

[I]t's "impossible" for a novelist to write about real, as opposed to pornographic, sex anyway. "Sex is irreducibly personal, therefore not universal," he later tells me.

"It's not that surprising. Of all human activities this is the one that peoples the world. With that tonnage of emotion on it, if there is going to be one thing you can't write about then that would be it. It's a bit like why it's so difficult to write about dreams."

Well, you know what I think about that: arrant nonsense. Good sex is easy as long as a) you know what good sex is and b) you're a good writer. You just have to be brave.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Smart people drink more

From Psychology Today, data to suggest that smart people drink more:

The following graph shows the association between childhood intelligence (grouped into five “cognitive classes”: “very dull” – IQ < 75; “dull” – 75 < IQ < 90; “normal” – 90 < IQ < 110; “bright” – 110 < IQ < 125; “very bright” – IQ > 125) and the latent factor for the frequency of alcohol consumption. The latter variable is constructed from a large number of indicators for the frequency of alcohol consumption throughout adult life and standardized to have a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1.0. The data come from the National Child Development Study (NCDS) in the United Kingdom. There is a clear monotonic association between childhood intelligence (measured before the age of 16) and the frequency of alcohol consumption in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. “Very bright” British children grow up to consume alcohol nearly one full standard deviation more frequently than their “very dull” classmates.

I'll leave you to figure out which category I belong to. I always knew I had a reason...

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Editor, stat!

Editor, stat! (Definitely not stet.)

Yesterday afternoon, too tired to do anything else, I dragged a pile of magazines over to the sofa and started to read. First up: the Nov/Dec Archaeology Magazine. I didn't get to p. 5. They have a new editor-in-chief. If her editorial is anything to go by, she can neither spell nor delegate. It's riddled with errors; it's wooden; it's boring.

Three annoyances chosen at random: too many commas; at least one erroneous homophone; lots of passive construction.

I want to strangle someone. If I just had the energy...

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Low key 'r' us

The last couple of weeks have been...interesting. Good in many ways--the weather, the company, some publishing stuff I'll talk about when I can--but not great in others.

The biggest annoyance is that, for the first time in a few years, my MS has gone live. What this means is that I feel as though someone has pulled the plug and my energy has poured away, run away, gone. It's not the kind of tired that can be cured by a good night's sleep. It's the kind of tired that has to be managed very, very carefully. As a result, I've been cancelling social and business meetings left and right, and pushing back what I can. If I've promised you something, please expect delays. How long? No idea--that's the nature of the beast.

One of the things that happens when I'm first coming down with this kind of fatigue--when I think it's just I've-been-doing-too-much ordinary tiredness--is that my brain retreats and tends towards the non-verbal. That's the place I've been in the last few days, which is why the posts around here have been a bit thin on the ground. My guess is that if I lounge about for another few days, and if the sun keeps shining, I'll get better rapidly. So expect some long, juicy posts either late next week or early the week after. There's so much I want to say: about plot and publishing, book community, story, clothes and shopping (that will most probably be a rant), why the new Nikita is so very crap, and unicorns. (Really.)

For now, though, I'm going to spend the day thinking about Hild, drinking tea, and eating a delicious chicken with root vegetables stew made by the beauteous Kelley. For a little while, low key 'r' us.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Winter is coming...

Morning, Friday 15th October. Hard blue sky, a nip in the air, sun on the top of the trees. A fine day here in Seattle.

I hope it's beautiful where you are, and that you're making time to make the most of it. Winter is coming.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Don't mention the money

Babbage has an interesting post about the recent New York Tech Meetup and how it has its own "peculiar etiquette, which is that there are certain questions that you simply do not ask." The writer discusses two no-no questions, which boil down to How will you reach a reasonably large audience? and Aren't you doomed to fail because so-and-so is already doing it? S/he then goes on:

A third question you must never—but really never—pose at a Tech Meetup is "How will you make any money?"

[...]

The rationale for all these rules [...] is that early-stage start-ups are such delicate flowers that they should be exposed only to optimism and positive vibes, lest they wilt and die in the bright glare of critical thinking.

That, then, is another respect in which start-ups are like movies: they require a temporary suspension of disbelief. Such willing credulity is, especially to a Brit like me, still rather alien—or, dare I whisper it, American. But it is of course what makes an entrepreneurial society possible. And the main lesson from an NY Tech Meetup is that there is a simply astonishing concentration of talented people in this city sparking off each others' ideas and inventing countless ingenious new services...

This is what it feels like to teach new writers: entering into a mutual suspension of disbelief regarding the real world. Or, rather, as a teacher, deliberately fostering belief in the writers' ability to defy that reality. It's one of the primary skills of being a novelist: psychotic self-belief and willful commitment to the impossible--because, y'know, it *might* work. A million other people have tried it, but *I* will succeed.

Hurling oneself at the void, knowing we can do it, knowing we can make it happen--it's where all art comes from.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughtful discussion of women and SF--add your voice

Over at Torque Control there's a thoughtful post on gender and SF, including--yay!--A Plan. Go play, take part. Help stamp out Girl Cooties! And get some good reading recommendations while you're at it.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Writers: if you can't give money, give a story

Yesterday, I talked about the challenge grant to the Lambda Literary Foundation by Emerging Voices fiction fellow Chuck Forester. If you have some money to spare, I hope you'll give.

But if you're a writer and would rather give something other than money, another Fiction Fellow, Eric Nguyen, has announced the Better Book Project:

I am not part of any nonprofit organization. I can't say that I'm an activist in that I stay in an office and do work to help past laws. (After many interviews, I don't think I can truly be an activist in an office). But what I am is a writer. I am a part of culture. I am culture. (All writers and artists are). As a writer, I am doing what I can. I'll do the only thing that I can do. Write. And edit.

Thus, my
Better Book Project.

Inspired by Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project, this is a project for the queer literary community. It is our chance (it's our duty), to use our words to their full extent--to save lives, to communicate to our distant selves.

Think about yourself as a teenager. What story, what poem, what words would've made things better, in the face of bullies and unapproving family members, in a small town without a car perhaps, with no visible community? What would you tell them?

I am looking for words--
stories, poems, essays, short memoirs--for an anthology tentatively titled BETTER: Stories, Poems, Essays, Words for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Teens About Growing Up, Surviving, Living, and Thriving. Publication is set for Summer 2011.

Help make the world a better place, talk to Eric. I think it could be an astonishing book. I'll be submitting something. Please, think about it.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Help save queer lives. Give, and it will be doubled.



If you give $25 or more to the Lambda Literary Foundation right now, your gift will be matched, dollar for dollar, by Emerging Voices Fiction Fellow Chuck Forester--to a maximum of $10,000.

Give here. PayPal or credit card.

Please don't forget that if you work for a big company, such as Microsoft, your dollar will be doubled by the company and then by Chuck. That's a four-for-one value. (If you work for something like the Gates Foundation, which triples donations, that's, well, damn, it's a big fat lot. Do it!) If you're not out at your company well, hey, this is your opportunity. Yesterday (in the US, today in the UK) was National Coming Out Day. A win all round.

Books save lives. Queer books save queer lives. LLF, as far as I know, is the only foundation of its kind in the world. And, as the website says:

These can feel like scary times for our literature and independent publishers. LGBT bookstores are closing. Book publishing is undergoing a dramatic transformation from print to new digital technologies. Authors and publishers are reinventing the traditional means of reaching their reading audiences.

For over 20 years, the Lambda Literary Foundation has worked to raise the profile of our literature, to cultivate our emerging writers, and to engage the queer literati in these dynamic conversations through forums, readings, articles and spirited discussions throughout our community and on our website, LambdaLiterary.org.

The $10,000 Chuck Forester Challenge Grant will stretch your dollars in this struggling economy times two to help us expand our capacity and sustain our one-of-a-kind programs:
  • Lambda Literary Awards, since 1989 the most prestigious literary prize in the LGBT community.
  • Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices, the first of its kind ever offered to LGBT writers: a one-week intensive immersion in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry and an unparalleled opportunity to learn from the very best writers in the LGBT community.
  • LambdaLiterary.org (formerly Lambda Book Report), the web’s premier destination for LGBT book reviews, author interviews, opinion, book news and literary resources, with new content posted every day of the week!
No other national nonprofit does more for gay and lesbian letters than LLF, but we can’t do this work without you…because you love books and literature, you want to read the LGBT experience in fiction, nonfiction and poetry, you believe in the power of the written word and in our ability to make change.
There have been enough queer lives lost recently. Help LLF help save those lives. Just click the big graphic above. Really, it's that simple. And thank you.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

My coming out story

Today is Coming Out day (in the US, tomorrow in the UK). I've been out, very out, since I was sixteen. I don't even think about it anymore, I just assume I have Dyke tattooed on my forehead. But it wasn't always like this. Coming out for the first time was one of the most difficult things I ever did. Here's a long exerpt from my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer's early life. I've left in all the extraneous bits so that you can see the context--because coming out is never just about sex, it's about everything. It's about coming into oneself. It starts at age thirteen. (You need to know that I lived in Leeds, Yorkshire. I had four sisters, including Carolyn (seven years older, living with a woman called Jackie) and Helena (three and a half years younger), and attended a Catholic convent (day) school from age 10 to 17.)

(As I've said, it's long, so if you prefer to read on your ereader, there's a handy PDF conversion button at the end.)
---------

Coming Out, Coming Into Myself

My life became less and less easy to understand. I began to drift away from the world. My life felt like a cool-edged dream, like being at sea with everything draped in mist, the sky and water indistinguishable and the shore invisible. Nothing felt real. Everyone around me was getting crushes on teen idols (boys, of course) and listening to terrible music (Donny Osmond and David Cassidy) and for me it was like looking at the universe as a reflection in a spoon: weirdly distorted, small, and upside down. My school reports of this time mention over and over that I am "reticent" in class, "too quiet." I had withdrawn, shocked by the real world and the knowledge that, for me, it was several degrees off kilter.

I didn't have friends. I spent all my lunchtimes playing netball (winter) or tennis (summer) for the school teams--the only one in my class to do so. I was smart but utterly uncommunicative. I became weird. Then I became very weird. I didn't know what was happening.

I don't have coherent memories of this phase of my life, just brightly-coloured snapshots. I remember getting off the bus one day in autumn and walking towards my house, and seeing the ivy growing on the stone walls, all russet and gold and orange. It was beautiful. I stopped dead on the pavement, and wondered why I felt so moved. And I thought: Oh, I'm bored, and Oh, I'm lost, and Oh, I don't belong here. I didn't know what I meant by any of it. I had just turned thirteen.

Not long after that, I started getting friendly--if you can describe cool and distant and ambivalent as friendly--with a girl called Anne Dale. She had an English face with cut-glass features, blonde hair and blue eyes. Somehow we agreed we would go to the theatre together (the theatre?) to see Godspell (Godspell?!) and I would stay at her house afterwards.

I wore my sister Julie's skirt--a beautiful cut-on-the-bias thing in wide, jewel-coloured stripes--and sat next to Anne in a nosebleed seat at Leeds Grand Theatre and spent the entire performance trying not to give into the unexpected compulsion to throw myself off the balcony and into thin air. We shared some chocolates (though I've no idea who bought them). Then we went to her house. Then we went to bed.

Two beds, touching each other. Perhaps we talked. Anne fell asleep, blissfully, innocently (or so I assume), and I lay there sweating, wanting desperately and with dreadful specificity to reach out and undo her nightie and touch her breast. I yearned to touch her. I needed it more than I'd consciously needed anything in my life to that point.

I did nothing.

The next day we had a polite breakfast, and I went home. A little while later she asked me if I'd like to come sailing one weekend, and I said no.

I had seen what happened to Carolyn when she discovered she liked girls at the age of fifteen: my parents had tried to make her a ward of court; they got her girlfriend fired; and Carolyn left home and went crazy and tried to kill herself. I was two years younger than Carolyn had been and my parents were already prepped, primed, and practised. I knew, without having to put it into words, that no hint of how I felt must be allowed to escape my event horizon--not to Anne, not to Helena, not to anyone at any time in any way. Not until I reached sixteen and my legal minority.

I've never been a poker face; I'd never had to learn. But here I was, suddenly, appallingly, viscerally and unmistakeably interested in girls, at a Catholic all-girl's school where I did a lot of sports and took a lot of showers with my naked team mates.

I started to drink. I drank to not think and to not feel, to not give myself away.

I drank a lot. I drank every day: stolen stuff when I had to, stuff bought from the local off-licence when I could: pints of cream sherry (disgusting stuff, but it did the trick) and bottles of Clan Dew, a fortified wine like Thunderbird (but worse). Every day--sometimes just to take the edge off, sometimes to the point of falling down.

I was wild for escape. Now more than ever I fell into books. I rediscovered science fiction, this time the epic series: EE 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series, the glory of Foundation by Isaac Asimov and, of course, Frank Herbert's Dune. But it still wasn't enough. So now I listened to music, too, on an obsolete transistor radio. The pop music of the time, like all pop music, was vapid, but I did develop a fondness for glam rock: Gary Glitter, Sweet, T. Rex, Bowie. Then my parents bought a huge wooden cabinetted stereogram, and I found the music of their youth--Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra--some educational classical medleys (which I hated; they always seemed to stop before they really got started), and The Sound of Music soundtrack. I listened to that one a lot.

I started smoking when I was thirteen, too--on my own, at night, standing between the open window and the closed curtains. This I couldn't keep secret from Helena, so soon we were sharing cigarettes.

The summer before I was fourteen, Julie (who was nineteen) and I went to Scotland for two weeks, to stay with Auntie Pat and Uncle Arnold in Bishopbriggs, a suburb of Glasgow. Julie was depressed and needed a break. I was to look after her: make sure we got the right trains, make sure nothing bad happened, and so on.

Auntie Pat was a perfect host, but with nothing to drink I was terribly restless. One night Julie and I went to a university disco. I was admitted without difficulty, but the doorkeepers told Julie she was too young. I explained to them that she was with me. They let her in. We got picked up by two students almost immediately, and I made mine buy me cup after paper cup of vodka, after which I kissed him with perfect indifference.

One day Arnold, a specialist paint salesman, took me on his sales rounds. It was an awful day--silence in the car, a terrible thirst, boring scenery--until we went to a power station. "Why are we here?" I asked. And he explained in tedious detail about paint. Somewhere in his lengthy technical explanation about emulsion and toxicity and molecular size I grasped the general idea: he was selling them special paint to coat the pipes that carried away the water used to cool the towers, and then decanted the warm effluent into fish tanks. It was a pretty mind-boggling idea, this notion of recycling resources, doing something useful with a waste product.

Something in the back of my brain woke up. I spent the next week or so terribly alert, hardly drinking, enjoying the Highlands and my very first Aberdeen Angus steak (with an invitation to feel free to smoke afterwards--smoking in front of grown-ups!).

When I got back to school and turned fourteen, I kept drinking but I felt...better. I enjoyed my lessons more. I was more engaged. I began to get a particular kick from physics and chemistry; after the paint and power station, I could see the point, dimly.

As a joint Christmas present that year, Carolyn and Jackie gave me and Helena their cast-off record player. They also took me to a second-hand music shop in Headingley, and I never looked back.

I fell in love with music that my contemporaries (and family, except Helena) found bizarre and suspect: Bowie's first few albums, Led Zeppelin, very early Pink Floyd. Others' suspicion puzzled me. How can you not like a track called "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" or something that consists entirely of screams called "Careful with That Axe, Eugene"? How could Donny and Marie Osmond singing "Paper Roses" be better to listen to than "Dazed and Confused"? I shook my head and turned the music up, suddenly clear about my taste. The music freed me in a way the books didn't, because it gave me a kind of ballast. The music was real, it could literally move objects (if I played it loud enough); it existed by any objective criteria. It was not just in my head.

Feeling safe in terms of my musical taste gave me the freedom to experiment in other arenas. I read Burroughs' Naked Lunch (I recognised the confusion, but little else), and Asterix (in English to start, then French when I ran out of translations). I watched Monty Python and Hammer House of Horror films with equal glee and felt most sophisticated when my mother recoiled in disgust. There again, I also liked Benny Hill.

By the time I was fifteen I'd begun to feel very much myself, a self that had been dissolved in a hormone storm and was growing back differently. Growing back as me, not a personality based on other people's expectations.

While I was more certain inside, I don't believe I appeared any less strange to my contemporaries. Now, though, the secret knowledge that I liked girls gave me a kind of armour. I felt invincible: I wasn't who or what Catholic World wanted, so I didn't have to bother trying.

I dreamt my way through classes, occasionally popping back to reality to answer a direct question, or when a phrase or a notion caught my interest. The puzzled tone of my teachers is evident in my end-of-term reports: "Did so much better than expected," "This mark is a disgrace," "Has evident gifts but must try harder," "Nicola must apply herself equally to all her subjects." I simply didn't care, and I was perfectly at ease not caring. I felt astonishingly free.

One day in English class, Mrs Squires (Mrs Stern taught the younger girls) was trying to talk to us of the importance of our exams. She was having a hard time persuading us they mattered. She stopped mid-sentence, came around from behind her desk and said earnestly, "What do you want to be doing in ten years?" The class answered one by one: wife and mother, masters degree in education, actress, and so on. I listened with dispassionate interest. I realised everyone was looking at me. "...you, Nicola?" Mrs Squires was saying. "You're the only one who hasn't answered."

"I want to live in a cave all on my own."

"You do not!" Debbie said, horrified.

"I do. I want to live in a cave in a forest clearing by a lake, and do nothing except watch deer eat grass and the clouds move across the sky."

"I don't believe you," Debbie said.

I shrugged.

"But why?"

"It's what I want. I don't have to defend it."

"Yes, you do!" Lots of nods.

I folded my arms. People started shouting.

"No," Mrs Squires said. "Nicola is right. I asked her, she answered. Now let's open Macbeth, at Act Two..."

At that point I decided I liked Mrs Squires and I might do her the honour of paying attention in her class. Sometimes.


So I began to pay attention in English classes, sometimes. In the literature classes, to Shakespeare (though I ignored everything else). In language classes, to creative writing. After one of my exercises, a particularly dreamy description of a liquid-metal forest, was read out in class with Mrs Squires' comments, "The best descriptive writing I've ever read," everyone around me began to assume I would one day become a writer. I knew this because they told me; people were talking to me again, and I to them.

Perhaps this was because although I was still strange, they now had a pigeonhole to slot me into: I was a writer, and everyone knows writers are weird. Perhaps it was that I was drinking a little less and taking some interest in the world. I was happier, and happy people attract others. I became friends with a girl called Louise, and Una-and-Christina (an inseparable pair), all B students of the arts and humanities and subjects mysterious to me such as economics, and shorthand and typing.

They introduced me to the notion of a social life. I introduced them to drinking. They were fastidious, though; they wouldn't drink the methylated spirits used to clean the blackboards ("Eeew. It's purple!") or Clan Dew. No, we actually pooled money and bought bottles of Blue Nun (wine, not much of a kick but dreadfully sophisticated) or drank malt liquor (Colt 45) liberated from Una's parents. I felt almost normal.

At this point, I started also making friends with Gillian and Sarah, another inseparable pair, though this time A students in mathematics, physics, chemistry. They were acknowledged geeks.

My two sets of friends were like oil and water. In the UK, in those days, at age fourteen schoolchildren were required to start specialising, picking 'O' level subjects. Certain subjects--English language, maths, religion, French--were mandatory. Then we were supposed to pick another two to six subjects from a laundry list of things like Latin, physics, economics, geography... It was assumed we would select--and the syllabus was arranged to facilitate--one of two major paths, arts or sciences. I picked ten subjects, including English literature, Latin, and all the sciences. Several teachers were cross: the geography teacher, the music teacher, and so on. They found a way to call me to their desk at the end of class, "Oh, Nicola, there appears to be some mistake, you're not on my list for next year..." Career counsellors had their shot at me, too. Arts or sciences, they said. Pick a pond and get used to it. But I was adamant: I wasn't going to choose.

So, like ducks and swans, my friends were not destined to mix. But I paddled blithely in both ponds and gradually we found commonalities: Elvis Presley, for one thing. That is, Una (and therefore Christina) and Gillian (and therefore Sarah) liked Elvis. I felt nostalgic, because of Juliette and Catherine, and so went along good-humouredly. It also seemed that Gillian and Sarah thought Led Zeppelin was pretty spiffy. From these tentative beginnings we forged a seriously unlikely group.

Louise and I were a de facto pair but we were very unlike each other. It's actually a mystery to me how we became friends. I don't remember it happening, I just remember being fifteen and having the desk next to hers in our form room (a kind of home room). Our lockers were next to each other. Then she somehow acquired a boyfriend, whose name I forget (though his nickname was Oddball because, ah, well, you know...), who had a friend called Martin. One night Louise phoned and asked me if I wanted to double date.

Clearly the true answer was No, but for some mysterious teenage reason I went. One thing led to another, and a few weeks later, Louise and I and Martin and Martin's friend, Miles, found ourselves on an archaelogical dig near Helmsley, Yorkshire, in summer during a terrible heatwave.

I liked Martin. He was sixteen, but amazingly mature and generous. He'd travelled all over the world, spoke Italian, was self-assured and calm for a sixteen year-old.

So there we were, doing hard manual labour six days a week in very primitive conditions. Digging is hard work; it was none of that dental pick, soft brush nonsense for us. We were grunts. We swung the axes, shovelled the dirt, hauled the stones, trundled the wheelbarrows. Brutal, but very satisfying. Martin and I would dig all day in the heat with pickaxes, walk two miles to the pub, drink a few pints, talk while we walked back in the silent, velvety warm night. We occasionally (illegally) scaled the walls of Helmsley Castle, where we sat on the dry grass and talked, or had sex then talked.

It was clear that I really liked sex but didn't much care for lingering over his body. It distressed him.

"Are you a lesbian?" he asked me one night.

"Eh?" I said, shocked and flustered.

"Are you a lesbian?"

"I don't know," I said cautiously.

"I just thought that, y'know, you might be."

"I might," I said. And that was that. Our teenage brains wouldn't let us slice-and-dice the issue any more clearly. But at two in the morning, while Martin slept beside me, and the crow-guns shot at intervals across the fields, I pondered what he'd said.

Lesbian, I whispered. Lesbian. I think it was the first time I'd allowed myself to say the word.

The next day, the woman I was pickaxing with seemed extra-luscious. I kept edging closer. Eventually she said, "That Martin. He's your boyfriend, right?"

"I suppose," I said.

She nodded emphatically to herself, and thereafter made sure we were several feet from each other at all times. I dreamt about her once or twice. Sometimes she morphed into Una.

When the dig closed down, I went back to Leeds, to the world of indoor plumbing, hot food, wall-to-wall carpeting, sharing a bedroom with Helena. I was as lithe and muscled as a panther, and tanned a deep brown, and I felt utterly caged. I promptly got sick.

In England it's called glandular fever. In the US, mononucleosis, or Epstein-Barr. The worst part was the swollen glands in my throat. I couldn't even swallow my own spit without so much pain it didn't seem worthwhile. I was threatened with hospitalisation and IV rehydration unless I started drinking water. But it hurt too much. So my mother called Martin, who arrived with a quart of orange juice and an absolute determination to stay until I'd finished the lot.

I was furious with my mother--Martin, in my life, in my house!--and I hated orange juice. (You just don't want to put anything acidic on a raw throat. It's stupid. He was stupid. My mother was stupid.) I told him to bring me tea, and water, and chicken soup, and then I womanfully swallowed and swallowed until he went away.

I lay on the sofa, and listened to Frank Sinatra, and thought about Una. She was sensible and practical. She wouldn't have given me stupid orange juice. She liked Frank.

I started daydreaming about talking to her about everything, about my conversation with Martin (lesbian, lesbian...), about love and what it was. About kissing her. And somehow, in the space of a week or so, I understood what I should have known all along: I was in love with Una.

But I still wasn't sixteen. So when I recovered enough to get off the sofa and to get out of the house, and saw Una, I settled for sitting close to her and smiling a lot.

I still saw Martin, of course.

By this time Louise was more interested in Miles than Oddball, so she suggested we fix Oddball up with Una. One sunny afternoon, Una and Louise and I met Martin and Oddball and Miles in the grounds of the flat Martin shared with his mother. (Beautiful, parklike grounds--she was the warden of the local YWCA.) It was a disaster. I couldn't keep my eyes off Una. When we all moved indoors, I couldn't keep away from her. Martin sulked. We rowed. Una and I strolled outside. Martin shouted. I shouted back. Martin pulled out his air rifle (BB gun) and shot at us. Well, not at us, exactly, but near us, and one pellet ricocheted from the pavement and hit Una's arm. It was mostly spent, but I knew it would leave a bruise. I was livid.

We left. Two weeks later we were back at school. Two weeks after that it was my sixteenth birthday. Two weeks after that, I told Martin it was over. I was probably less gentle than I could have been, but I had no experience of breaking up with anyone, and I had never spent much time talking about this kind of thing with friends. I was clueless--possibly even cruel, though I didn't mean to be.

After my 'O' level results in the summer, I'd picked my 'A' levels: biology, chemistry, and physics. General studies was mandatory. Once back at school I was soon deep in organic chemistry, marine biology, and partial differential equations. When I paid attention, the work pleased me. Most of the time, though, I either ignored it or didn't bother to show up.

I started to write poetry for Una (partially cribbed from Emily Dickinson--I remember some horrors about souls on fire and angel wings, but I didn't start saving work until I was in my twenties, so I no longer have any of it). I didn't give her the poetry. I had been in hiding so long I didn't know how to come out.

I was in hiding in other ways, too. At school assembly one morning Sister Anne announced that the annual theatre production would be an operetta, The Mikado. The people in charge would be the music teacher, Miss Turner, and Mrs Stern, my old English teacher. "You should do that," Una said. "No," I said. "Oh, no."

But Una usually got when she wanted. On the day of the auditions, she made sure that she and I and Christina (Christina was glued to her side during school hours, just as in home hours Helena was glued to mine) just happened to be strolling down a corridor after lunch. Una stopped outside the music room, and beckoned to me. "Listen. Here, put your ear to the door." I leaned in obediently. She threw open the door, shoved me in, and clapped the door shut behind me.

Miss Turner, at the piano, looked at me. Mrs Stern looked at me. "Nicola," she said. "What are you doing here?"

I blinked.

"Would you like to audition?"

Silence.

"Well," said Miss Turner, "pick a song. Come along, come along now. We haven't all day."

Mrs Stern handed me a book of songs. I opened it at random, realised I knew the song, and swallowed.

"All right?" Mrs Stern asked. I nodded.

Miss Turner said, "Well, which song is it? Come along now!"

And so I told her--though I don't remember what it was, some old standard, some semi-religious, semi-patriotic battle anthem--and she crashed into the intro, and I sang, and I butchered it. At least the first few bars. But singing filled me with power and life and bravery, and I sang the rest with a deep and reckless joy. And then it was over, and they were staring at me as though I were a pink frog.

Miss Turner cleared her throat. "Well. Yes. Very good. Thank you. Assignments will be announced at assembly in one week."

I don't remember what I said to Una later, but at the assembly, my name was read out as an understudy role. Una was thrilled. I was pissed off. An understudy? An understudy?!

But with Una nagging and prodding I went to the first rehearsal, sucked it up and learnt the role of Koko along with the girl who was really going to play him. I went to the next rehearsal, and the next. And then at the first orchestra rehearsal, the girl playing Koko wasn't there. "Nicola," said Miss Turner. "Come and sing the part for the orchestra, help them get it right."

So I did. Singing with a full orchestra, even with the screechy, clueless school violinists, was like a look behind the veil. I sang with utter unselfconsiousness, aware only of the living flow of music. I finished. And the entire room was silent afterwards, for about five seconds. Then Miss Turner exploded in rage. "I've never heard such rubbish in my life! You're not paying attention!" She was shouting at the orchestra, I realised, not me. "There's Nicola, singing her heart out, and you're not giving her, or me, or anyone else in this room the courtesy of your full attention. Get out, the lot of you. Out, out, out. Except you, Nicola. You stay. Now sing me that again..."

The next day I was pulled out of class, told my netball schedule was being severely cut back (I was on the very competitive school team--we always won our regional division), and that I was to report three times a week for rehearsal in the role of Yum-Yum.

Yum-Yum. A girl's part. How mortifying. Una, naturally, was delighted. By an alchemy I didn't understand, she was now proprietary of me and all my doings; this apparently was her triumph as much as mine.

Christmas approached. I had no money, but I wanted to give Una something nice. What would she like? She said, "Sing my favourite song just for me."

Singing from the perspective of a Japanese schoolgirl was one thing; it was acting, which to me at the time was just another form of hiding. Singing to a girl I loved about, well, love, was another thing entirely. No hiding possible. In an agony of anxiety, I managed to buy new batteries for my Phillips cassette recorder, to get Helena to leave the bedroom, and then to the little grille microphone to sing Sinatra's "Softly." I wrapped the cassette and gave it to Una for Christmas.

On Tuesday nights we started going to the Catholic Youth Club but, once there, shunning company. (Christina was unshunnable, but on Tuesday nights, she had clarinet lessons). We sat on the wall outside in the bitter cold and smoked, and drank bottles of Blackthorn cider. We talked. I told her as best I could of my stay in Scotland, and how things had changed for me. She misunderstood. I gathered--dimly, through the hormones and anxiety and alcohol--that she thought I was trying to tell her I'd woken up in a bed in Scotland with a man on one side and a woman on the other. Perhaps I meant her to think so. Perhaps I just plain lied, or perhaps I confused my dreams for reality. More likely I simply couldn't articulate all the thoughts and feelings surfacing like krakens in my poor muddled brain. She did understand that I liked her, that I wanted to be much much more than friends.

As winter began to shade to spring, Una was waiting; it had somehow become my job to speak the words, to make the move.

I was terrified. By February we'd got only as far as holding hands while pretending we weren't, and springing apart any time anyone came anywhere near.

At about this time it was announced, again at assembly, that this year's half-term school trip would be to Greece. Without actually saying anything, Una and I communicated to one another that we would both like to go to Greece because then we'd be together at night. We pestered our parents until they gave in and ponied up. Ann Dale was going to go, and Christina.

Now we just had to wait.

The Mikado was scheduled. I could do the songs alright, at least most of the time, but I was hopeless at remembering my speaking lines. Rote learning was not my forte. I began to dread the first performance. As the date crept closer, I drank more. By the time the dress rehearsal rolled around, I was wasted. The orchestra started the overture, I waited--in a beautiful wedding kimono (borrowed from the mother of one of the Japanese children at Mum's nursery school)--in the wings. People did things, sang things, my cue...

...and I didn't move, couldn't move. Someone in the chorus gave me a good shove and I catapulted onto the stage and opened my mouth, and the song just fell out. The rest of the show is hazy.

Thinking about Una drove me to the limits of endurance. To stay sane, I thought about something I'd never thought of before: the future. Perhaps I wanted to study medicine. Yes. But I'd probably need mathematics for that. Also, while I was at it, I should add English; I missed the arts. The fact that 'A' levels are a two-year course of study and I'd already lost almost a year would make it difficult to persuade the Powers That Be.

I started negotiating. At that age, this meant a statement of intent from me followed by silence. No, they said eventually, I couldn't fit six 'A' levels into my schedule, it was materially impossible. Especially as I'd be critically behind on two of the subjects. My silence became mulish.

Well, they said, perhaps if I could persuade the relevant teachers to help me catch up through private tutoring?

I nodded fractionally. Mrs Squires would help me out, I knew.

And perhaps I could drop one of my other subjects?

Physics, I said. I hated those partial differential equations. (Executive brain function is notoriously absent in teenagers. Why I thought it would easier to study calculus full-time as pure mathematics, than part time as physics, is beyond me.)

And so my schedule expanded: five 'A' levels, team tennis, private tutoring, and increasing franticness about the approaching Greek trip with Una, and my inability to actually say anything to her about it. On top of all that, I was worried about Helena.

She was shoplifting. She stole chocolate for the thrill. I was horrified: what if she got caught? Every day she brought home bags of swag. I disapproved, but I ate it.

She expanded her horizons. Stole more and more, travelling all over town to break new territory. There was no need for the things she took, no rhyme or reason. It was just stuff. And there was a lot of it: chocolate, books, art supplies, guitar strings. It began to pile up. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't stop her, but I wasn't going to inform on her, either. And I knew, given her disregard for planning and preparation, she would get caught sooner rather than later. "We have to get rid of it," I said, and found a hiding place between the joists, under the eaves of our massive house.

One day, munching chocolate, reading an expensive, stolen art book, listening to Helena tune the new strings on her guitar, I said, "People would pay for this."

And that's how I began my brief career as a criminal mastermind. To make sure she wasn't caught, I'd case the shop: security person looks like this, cameras are here, mirrors here, expensive books on that side are watched, on this side, not. Then I'd go to school and casually ask around who needed oil paints or new clarinet reeds or some glossy text book. I'd give Helena the list--verbal, of course, nothing written down--then send her to one of the previously cased shops. My reasoning was that she was going to steal anyway, and if I helped she was less likely to get caught. Plus we'd profit.

This worked well for a few weeks. But as the weather warmed and the first coo-hoot of returning wood pigeons echoed in the woods, heavy coats became more obvious and the game more risky.

At the beginning of May, I got off the bus and was walking down Shaw Lane smiling at the summery wood pigeon song, when Mum and Dad's car swept by. This was very unusual. The only time Mum and Dad were ever in a car together in the daytime during the week was to rush to hospital to tend to another accident (me or Helena) or suicide attempt (Carolyn) or sudden illness (Julie--Anne never seemed to be seriously ill).

The car screeched to a halt. I dropped my bag and ran back to it. "Is it Helena?" I said. "Is she all right?"

"It's Helena," Mum said, with her I've-been-sucking-lemons face. "We're on our way to the police station."

"Oh," I said.

"Go home, Nicola," Dad said.

They were both so angry it was hard to tell if they knew of my complicity or not. "Right," I said. "Home. I'll start tea."

I got to Grove Road and thundered up the servants' stairs. I sanitised our room in five minutes flat, dragging piles of stuff under the eaves, replacing the hatch access with care so as not to disturb the dust in the cracks and crevices. I collected the chocolate wrappers, the discarded book bands, the art supply packaging. I brushed at the carpet so no one would see drag marks leading to the hatch. I threw the rubbish away, replaced the bin liners and put a few cold butts and crumpled bits of paper in so they didn't look suspiciously clean, smoked nervously, remembered I'd said I'd start tea.

I ran back down the steps to the kitchen. Fried onions, made sausage patties, browned braising steak, got it all simmering. Cut potatoes for mash. Chopped cabbage. Started to pace. Helena was thirteen. She wouldn't get any serious punishment. I was sixteen. The consequences could be very bad indeed--if she told anyone.

The front door banged open.

Coming up the stairs Mum and Dad looked humiliated, livid, and betrayed. Helena looked...like Helena.

"So," I said, "tea's on."

Dad gave me a look I couldn't interpret. "In the lounge," he said.

Oh, god.

In the lounge, Helena and I sat next to each other on the settee. Mum and Dad took their chairs on either side of the fireplace. I studied Helena's face but learnt nothing.

"Now then, Nicola," Dad said. "Did you know about this shoplifting?"

No help whatsoever from Helena's expression.

"No," I said.

Silence. Then he nodded. "I'm very glad to hear it. And now we're going upstairs to take a good look."

That night, Helena told me she'd got an official caution, "I promised not to do it again," she said, and shrugged, and while I nearly threw up on the carpet with stress she lit herself a cigarette, looked around, and said, "So where'd you put the chocolate?" And a month later she was stealing again. But I washed my hands of it and I told her she could never, ever bring home the goods, that anything I thought was stolen I would throw away. She agreed, but it was clear: she simply didn't care if she got caught. What was also clear was her contempt at the fact that I did care.

A week before half-term and the trip to Greece I said to Una, come out for a drink, there's a, a thing I want to talk to you about.

So we went to the pub, and I couldn't say anything. We drank steadily.

It started to rain. Nonetheless, we wordlessly chose to walk the three miles home rather than taking a bus. It would give us, me, more time to pluck up the courage to say the Thing.

We walked. We brushed hands. My heart thumped like a trapped rabbit. We passed some of the shops Helena stole from. We passed Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"Hungry?" Una said.

I nodded. I wasn't, but if we ate, I'd have ten more minutes to get the words out of my mouth.

We ordered a bucket of something. We stood outside in the rain and ate.

"So," I said. "So."

She waited.

"This thing I wanted to say."

She nodded.

"It, I..."

She nodded again. When she saw I was stalled, she said, "Is this something to do with Scotland?"

"No! Yes. Well, maybe."

Silence. "Okay," she said. "Can you name the subject at least?"

I tried. I simply couldn't. I'd forced myself to be silent for three years, and my walls were as unbreachable as those bricks around Fortunato. For the love of god, Montressor...

Rain filled her eyes, or maybe it was tears. She began to turn away.

"Wait," I said. "Wait. It's, the subject, it's... It begins with--" But I couldn't even say It begins with L. But I had to. I had to find a loophole, a chink in the wall.

"It's... Thirteen!" I blurted. "It begins with the thirteenth letter of the alphabet."

"Thirteen?" She counted, frowned. "L?" she said, frowning some more. "It begins with L?"

I stared at my bucket of soggy chicken pieces and nodded miserably.

"Nicola," she said. "Nicola. It's, that's..." I looked up. Her face was shining. "I feel that way too!"

We held hands all the way to her house. "We're going to Greece," I said at one point.

"I wish we were there now!"


We went to Greece. We shared a room with Christina. On the first night we all drank and drank and drank, we drank Christina unconscious, and then Una and I lay down next to each other.

Greece was the first foreign country I visited. It marked many firsts. Kissing a girl. Knocking a man down (I was smoking outside a disco, sitting on a wall, he came outside and sat next to me; he wore a white silk catsuit, professed to love the music of "pin floynd", and insisted that because he was joining the army tomorrow we had to kiss; I pushed him backwards off the wall). Smoking inside an historical monument (the Parthenon, and yes, it was amazing to sit on a broken column and look out over the city with my girl by my side and a fat bumble bee buzzing by my foot).

At Athens airport, on the plane, on the coach from London to Leeds, Una and I held hands beneath our blankets or under newspapers or bags. After a whole week of being together every minute of every hour, breathing her smell, watching the fall of her long black hair, lighting her cigarettes, feeling the curve of her smile as my own, we were heading back to the real world, where we'd be expected to see each other only at school, in front of everyone else.

We still didn't talk about it.

At the Leicester motorway service station, the bus stopped so everyone could use the bathroom and buy tea. Una and I sneaked away, walked right through the kitchens, found ourselves on the back step of the service entrance. It stank of garbage. Wasps buzzed. But no one could see us. We kissed like starving people. When we got back on the bus, we got told off by everyone: we'd made them wait.

When the bus pulled into the school car park, we all headed for our parents' cars. Una turned briefly before she climbed into hers. "Bye," she said, "see you Monday."

If you've ever contemplated what it's like for a bee when it pulls itself away from a hive attacker she's just stung, then you know how I felt. Disembowelled. What if, on Monday (two whole days away), everything had changed? What if she didn't mean it? What if I never, ever got to kiss her again?

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But I did get to kiss Una again, a lot, as anyone who has watched this video before already knows:



So, if you're ready, come out. If you come out: Congratulations! Welcome to the rest of your life! If you're not ready, don't beat yourself up about it. There's a time for everything.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Farewell to the colours of summer

A melancholy, rainy day here in Seattle. But briefly this afternoon the clouds thinned to gauze and the garden blazed. I took some photos. I suspect it's the last time I'll see this kind of colour until next year.

And so, farewell to breakfast and lunch on the deck with birds singing:

"I mock your optimistic sunbrella."

Farewell to the hummingbirds trying (dim things) to sup nectar from the climbing roses. There's just one left, clinging gamely to the vine:

"They can't see me. They can't see me. They can't see me."

Farewell to the baroque web architecture. Just survival of the fattest:

"I'm the last of my kind--but they were tasty."

Farewell to the day lilies. I had no idea they could last this long. But they're looking a bit lost.

"Guys? Hello? Guys...?"

Farewell, maybe, to all this stuff--no idea what most of it is, but it seems to be shrugging off the weather, doing its own thing. Very Seattle.

"Burning Man? Totally. Hempfest? Dude!"

Farewell to these, too, though I still don't know what these are, either, though obviously they're much, much tougher than they look.

"We jeer at your October miserable rain. We are pink. Hear us...say pink things."


Farewell to the maple leaves, though the berries should be around for a while. And that fence post is built for electric-blue Stellars jays.


There won't be much colour in the turning leaves this year, I don't think, no flame red or burgundy or shimmering gold. But soon it'll be cold enough to sit before the fire and look into those reds and yellows, and we'll be sipping garnet-red claret, then there'll be orange pumpkins and the viney deliciousness of Beaujolais Nouvea. So damn the rain, and full speed ahead for autumn!

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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Wee pictures by...me

I was running a search for something on old Ask Nicola Q&As and came across this partial answer to something, including a link to some wee pictures I drew a long time ago with my nifty new (then) graphics pad.

But do I still draw? Not really. I never really did. [...] Having said that, I did get myself a graphics pad a couple of years ago and tried a kind of automatic drawing exercise where I put the stylus on the pad, drew a line, and then imaged from there would it could be. Here's an animation of some of those pics. One of these fine days I'll get around to doing some more, probably when I take up the guitar again, and the piano, and re-start learning Spanish, and ASL, and...

Enjoy the pictures. (Yes, I do know that the dog and the mouse have faces suspiciously like breasts. What can I say? The artist has hidden depths...or is seriously crap at drawing. Maybe both.) I was fixated on animals because I was contemplating a series of books that I may or may not tackle one of these days. I'd probably have to find a professional illustrator.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Books are journeys

I love books. I love my Kindle--I've read more novels per month in the last two years than I did before I got my Kindle. (Though fewer since most publishers went to 'agency pricing' and consequently hiked the cost of those novels. Grump grump.) But paper books have a dimension that ebooks don't: they're time capsules. I've talked about this before (in Doing It For Pleasure, reproduced in its entirety at the end of the post):

Reading also helps me connect and reconnect with myself. When I reread an old favourite, a ratty old paperback I've had since I was fifteen, say, I'm transported back in time, to the teenage me, the twentysomething me, the thirtysomething me. It's not just the words doing the work, nor the memory of concepts conjured for the first time by those words, it's the book as physical object that is the time capsule. I'll reach page fifty three and find the yellowish stain that still smells faintly of the satsuma peel I dropped and trod onto the book by mistake when my mother shouted upstairs that it was my turn to set the table. On page one hundred and eight there's a shred of tobacco from the cigarettes I used to roll for myself because I couldn't afford tailor-mades. On page two hundred and twenty four I encounter that illegible paragraph where the beetroot from my sandwich slid from the bread and landed in its full, juicy glory across the page. I pause in my read, and remember the room I was in when I peeled the orange, rolled the cigarette, ate the sandwich: I hear the Pink Floyd on the radio (which even then was so ancient the AC connection was broken, and the batteries was so expensive I had to wire a bunch of other, smaller batteries together in series to make it work), smell the tea I was drinking, see the dust motes dancing in the air. I reconnect with all those past me's that I wouldn't otherwise visit.

Books are journeys: intellectual, emotional, temporal. Ebooks can't do it all, yet.

But they might be able to add dimensions we haven't thought of before. Earlier in the week I read about Open Bookmarks. It's a whole new toolbox for sharing the ideas in and responses to books.

Lucky readers--those who already have friends and family who read and talk to each other a lot, who love each other and books--already do all this without technology, but we're the lucky ones. And we weren't always this lucky. I grew up in a house full of people who read--but we read different things, which took us to different places, and we never discussed them. I'm imagining if I'd grown up with networked reading. What would it have been like? Good or bad? I really don't know.

Thoughts?



Doing it For Pleasure

Reading isn't everything--it's not meat and drink, it's not sex or a warm hearth--but it's a lot. I need it. I do it often. I do it for pleasure.

Pleasure is a many-roomed mansion. Sometimes it's the urgent need for distraction--from fear or pain or grief. During my last stay in hospital, I read four books a day. I would have read more if I'd had them to hand. Story can make claustrophobia, discomfort, and anxiety bearable; I'm not sure I could bear to get on a plane without a book. Sometimes the pleasure of reading is in learning, formal or otherwise: history, biology, linguistics; how people think and what people feel; what the Antarctic really looks like. Most of my vocabulary comes from books. I spent my childhood believing fatigue was "fatty-gyoo;" I was probably twenty before I realised Pericles was not pronounced "Perry-kulls." Once I discovered the OED and its handy pronunciation guides, such uncertainties vanished--though it didn't and doesn't help with proper names. Sometimes I read for vindication, the "Yes, yes, yes, I knew someone else once felt/thought/did this!" As a child it's where I discovered that there are other people out there who don't believe in god; who think cliffs are for climbing; who look at other girls and want to kiss them. It's a way of connecting--forwards, backwards, and sideways--with the rest of the human race. Men in 350 BCE got hungry, had nightmares, told jokes. Women in Indonesia are impatient, daydream about shapes in the clouds, worry about their social standing. Teenagers of the future will experience the same rush of joy, the same belief in their absolute difference, the same pangs of insecurity and confusion that they have for millennia.

Reading also helps me connect and reconnect with myself. When I reread an old favourite, a ratty old paperback I've had since I was fifteen, say, I'm transported back in time, to the teenage me, the twentysomething me, the thirtysomething me. It's not just the words doing the work, nor the memory of concepts conjured for the first time by those words, it's the book as physical object that is the time capsule. I'll reach page fifty three and find the yellowish stain that still smells faintly of the satsuma peel I dropped and trod onto the book by mistake when my mother shouted upstairs that it was my turn to set the table. On page one hundred and eight there's a shred of tobacco from the cigarettes I used to roll for myself because I couldn't afford tailor-mades. On page two hundred and twenty four I encounter that illegible paragraph where the beetroot from my sandwich slid from the bread and landed in its full, juicy glory across the page. I pause in my read, and remember the room I was in when I peeled the orange, rolled the cigarette, ate the sandwich: I hear the Pink Floyd on the radio (which even then was so ancient the AC connection was broken, and the batteries was so expensive I had to wire a bunch of other, smaller batteries together in series to make it work), smell the tea I was drinking, see the dust motes dancing in the air. I reconnect with all those past me's that I wouldn't otherwise visit.

When I think of reading, I often picture dust motes dancing in a beam of indoor sunlight because in my imagination the ideal reading experience is tied to luxuriating in warmth and peace. Most of the time, the image in my head is of being curled up on the carpet in a patch of sunshine with the book balanced on my knee and the perfect cup of tea steaming gently at my side. Sometimes in my mind's eye I lie on my stomach before the fire, book flat in front of me, while outside an autumn storm rattles the windows but can't find a way in. In these daydreams commuters struggle miserably to their jobs while I stroll through an ancient forest or stab an enemy in the gut or learn something interesting about the politics of conversion in seventh century Northumbria--pausing only to take another sip of tea or select just the right truffle from the box of chocolates. In these dreams there is no music but the rain in the gutter or the birds in the trees, no conversation but the dialogue in my head; I am perfectly alone, perfectly at peace.

Yet when I read, part of my pleasure is the knowledge that others have read the same words and been amused, educated, delighted, vindicated or connected, and I feel part of something bigger and richer and intensely exciting. When I put the book down, I go in search of a friend to talk to about the ideas or characters or places I've discovered. All my friends are readers. I wouldn't have it any other way; readers are, in my opinion, better people for having spent much of their lives being amused, educated, delighted, vindicated and connected. If I ever found myself in one of those stories about a magic lamp, I wouldn't ask the djinn for peace on earth or a cure for cancer, my wish would be to turn every person on this earth into someone who likes to read: someone who needs it, who does it often, who does it for pleasure.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Living in a Fahrenheit 451 world

Pearls Before Swine

Pearls Before Swine is never dumb. And its brand of humour appeals to me. Cartman, Jayne, Rat: role models!

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Hammer House of Horror and...Jeanette Winterson!

Kelley just pointed this out to me. As she says, "Wow, this is all kinds of...well, you'll see!"

From Deadline Hollywood:

The reinvigoration of the legendary British film brand Hammer now includes Jeanette Winterson, the award-winning British author. She's writing an original novella for the new Hammer imprint to be published summer 2011. Arrow Books (Random House) plans to publish 6 Hammer novels a year beginning spring 2011. However, Hammer’s first film release in over 30 years, Let Me In, made an inauspicious U.S. start last weekend for Overture/Relativity. Next up is The Resident, starring Hilary Swank, which is still looking for a U.S. distributor. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe is currently shooting Hammer's The Woman In Black on location in the UK.

I loved Hammer House of Horror films as a wee thing in England. They had that delicious, cheesy, scary wickedness that my parents disapproved of. (Think Dracula meets M.R. James meets swingers in mini-dresses. Ooooh!) I used to watch the films on Saturday nights with my little sister when my parents and older sisters were all out doing Grown Up stuff. And we'd frighten ourselves half to death. I can hardly wait to see what they'll do with books. I think I might want to write one...

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Podcast interview: LGBT characters in f/sf

Up on Salon Futura #2 I'm interviewed, along with Hal Duncan and Cat Valente, by Cheryl Morgan, for a podcast about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of writing LGBT/LGBTQIA (aka quiltbag) characters in fantastic literature. It's an interesting conversation. Actually, I think it would be more true to say that I listened with interest while the others said smart things. My brain was in standby mode for much of it (the perils of 10-day jubilees: I did it on this day). I kept trying to wake up but just didn't quite get to the surface. And when I did chip in, my audio connection often boiled with static, so, eh, I think my part in the podcast was minor.

My contribution to the conversation can be summed up in three parts:

  • The way to treat quiltbag characters with respect is by treating them as human. That is, to avoid cliché. That is, to write specific people in particular situations. Then, eh, it doesn't matter if the dyke is killed at the end or the gay man is evil; they're people first. (And, y'know, sometimes people die, and sometimes they're evil. As long as they don't die or aren't evil because they're queer. Or, as Hal said--more more articulately than I--as long as being gay isn't a signifier of evil or tragedy.)
  • Straight writers don't need my permission to write quiltbag characters. Nor do they need to ask me for details. They need to use their fucking imagination. Basically, if you're not good enough to imagine lesbian (or trans, or bi, or gay) characters as human being in all their glory (and horror), you don't have what it takes to be a good novelist. It helps to have a life, to get out there and meet people of every persuasion, because then you begin to understand that the way you live your life is but a fraction of the glittering rainbow that is humanity.
  • I don't feel exploited by straight girls writing m/m fiction. This kind of romance (it's usually romance) is written by straight girls for other straight girls. If it makes them happy then, eh, why not? It doesn't hurt me. It's a novelty, a passing foolishness. Distasteful? Most of it. Crap? Most of it. A reinforcer of utterly wrong-headed stereotypes? Most of it. But it will pass. It's nothing to get seriously bent out of shape about. Which is easy for me to say, of course, because I'm not the subject of these odd little one-handed readers for straight girls. There again, my point is that gay men aren't really, either. But I'm guessing mileage will vary considerably on this one.

I'm a lot more articulate here on my keyboard than I was with my headset. But, as I say, the others had interesting things to say. Definitely worth a listen.

Salon Futura, by the way, is a gorgeous-looking new magazine run by FoAN Cheryl Morgan and stuffed with interviews and articles. So why are you still here?

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