Process schmocess

Vicki Jarrett, fabulous short story writer and author of ‘Nothing is Heavy’ (published by Linen press and short-listed for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award 2013) suggested I take part in this latest blog-tour-interview-yourself arrangement. This one is all about the ‘writing process’ which made me nervous because I’m not sure what my writing process actually is but presumably I should have one. So I thought I’d give it a go. If nothing else I’ll act as an Awful Warning for you, rather than a Shining Example (and Vicki’s own blog on her process is here).

Let’s go!

1)  What am I working on?

I’ve just finished a collection of short stories and am in the throes of punting it around. These are stories that I’ve been mulling over for a few years, but most of them were written during 2013. They’re all inspired by various bits and pieces of science. Some are loosely based on rather peculiar historical fragments; such as the suffragette bombing of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Robert Oppenheimer’s attempts to poison his PhD supervisor and Einstein’s forgotten child. Others riff on science’s obsessions with dark matter and DNA.

Now I’m thinking about the next ‘thing’. It’s probably going to be a novel, but the idea of sitting down and writing a full-length novel is somewhat scary so I’m just calling it a ‘thing’. I think it will be partly about Schrödinger writing the wave equation for quantum physics in a TB sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps accompanied by a mystery woman. What’s intriguing is that at first he himself didn’t understand what this equation actually meant. I like that idea of creating something and not understanding or being in control of its implications. And coincidentally when I was a kid, me and my family went on holiday to the same part of Switzerland. This may or may not be relevant to the ‘thing’.

 
2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure what genre I write in. My novel has been called science fiction and also literary fiction. Neither label bothers me, but I do get cross about the elitism that floats around literary fiction when so much of it can be as formulaic as any other genre. I’m quite keen on the ‘lablit’ label – fiction about real science.

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Because I can’t write anything else. I can only write what I write. And I’m driven to writing about science, about the efforts to understand the real material stuff that surrounds us. Scientists are storytellers, they just (mostly) don’t know it. I’m a storyteller about science.

 
4)     How does your writing process work?

Oh dear, there’s no avoiding it now.  It starts with a lot of random reading, staring out of windows and doodling illegible notes. And there’s a niggling thought – an obsession – a writing scratch that has to be itched. For my first book this was ‘just what would happen if you discovered something really peculiar in the sky? Something that seemed to challenge standard science?’

(At any one time I have quite a few of these obsessions – but I think the difficulty is knowing if they’re big enough to take the weight of an entire novel)

Then I sit down and write. I have tried to plan it all out beforehand but that doesn’t work because then I lose interest. If I know what’s going to happen, what’s the point of writing? So I write to discover. This does mean that in the first draft there are a LOT of dead ends – bits of plot that don’t go anywhere, characters that emerge out of a vacuum and then disappear again etc. etc.

Then I redraft. At this point I might feel ok about it.

Then I give the draft to other writers and get their feedback. I might stop feeling ok about it, or I might carry on.

Finally I have a draft that I am simultaneously feeling ok about, as well as hating every single word. That’s when I know I can stop.

Of course this is a rather sanitised version of the process; I’ve edited out all the endless obsessive rereadings of my favourite authors to try and understand the secrets of their writing. And the tears and biscuits and wine and the moaning at other writers and listening to them moaning…  it’s not pretty.

Seriously, I think a large part of my writing process includes thinking and pondering and reading. I’m not trying to escape the writing part, but I know I’m capable of mindlessly generating words that don’t really get me anywhere. Sometimes a bit of nastily objective thinking (‘Just what am I trying to do here?’ and ‘Am I doing what I want to do?’) is worth a thousand words.

 

Next up is Russell Jones, science fiction poet, editor, Edwin Morgan expert and author of two wonderful pamphlets; The Last Refuge (Forest Press, 2009)  and Spaces of Their Own (Stewed Rhubarb Press, 2013). HIs full length collection ‘The Green Dress whose Girl is Sleeping’ will be out next year.

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Quantum fiction

Recently I’ve been reading about quantum physics in another (futile) attempt to understand it. I studied it years ago as part of my degree, and I’ve read umpteen books about it. The first book I ever read about it – when I was a teenager – was ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’. Before that I’d never even heard of the term ‘quantum physics’ but that book got me hooked and was one of the reasons why I did a physics degree.

The reason for all the reading is because I want to write some fiction about, or inspired by, quantum physics. But the immediate problem is: what sort of fiction could that be? Traditional realist fiction is by its very nature at odds with the findings of quantum physics. The former uses words to generate some sort of underlying reality in the reader’s head, although this might be different for each reader. The standard interpretation of quantum physics is that there is no underlying reality, all we can do is explain observations and not invent some reality that cannot be directly observed. Although Einstein disagreed with this interpretation ( which was most famously articulated by Bohr in his debates with Einstein), it has come to be accepted. Think, for example, of the nature of light, sometimes it behaves as if it were a particle, other times as if it were a wave. Einstein said that this showed quantum physics was inadequate. Bohr argued that light simply exhibits either wave-like or particle-like characteristics, depending on the experimental set-up.

So, traditional fiction about quantum physics seems like a non-starter. There is quite a lot of fiction inspired by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, in which new Universes pop into being every time an experiment is carried out. But there is little fiction that seems to be directly inspired by the more standard ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation, in which the mutually contradictory realities of an object can co-exist in this Universe unless and until that object is observed. This interpretation is illustrated by Schrödinger’s cat, an apparently reductio ad absurdum thought experiment which cannot be faulted. The cat is both dead and alive until the box is opened and the cat is observed (although sometimes when I observe my cat, he’s so deeply asleep and so furry I panic and think he’s stopped breathing…).

And how do you capture those apparently mutually contradictory states in fiction? I can’t think of many examples. One not so immediately obvious example is ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ by Barbara Vine (the pen-name of Ruth Rendall). In this thriller, the story turns on which one of two sisters is the mother of a child. There is compelling evidence both for and against each woman being the mother, and the book never resolves the problem.

I’ve been inspired by this in writing a short story, loosely based on the real-life Italian physicist Majorana who disappeared in 1938, when he was 32 years old. He most likely committed suicide by jumping overboard off a boat, but there is evidence that he may have actually staged this suicide and continued to live in Argentina. So he seems to have been both dead and alive…

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Round-up of past, present and future happenings

Thought I’d take a breather from my usual level of pontificating and write about some more practical stuff, such as some interesting things/events that I have/will be part of:

Nice events  in the future:

I’m reading at the Dunbar Literary Festival on 18th June, with fellow New Writer Awardees Andrew Sclater, Katy McAulay, and Erika Shorter.

I’m also taking part in Rob A MacKenzie’s Olympithon charity reading with a zillion other people at the Bongo Club on 19th June.

And I’m reading at the Significant Seven event at Hendersons at St John’s, on 21st June, along with six other recently published authors, such as Vicki Jarrett, Peter Burnett and Dickson Telfer.

Nice things have happened in the past:

I recently spoke at two interesting events about the interaction between literature and science. Both stemmed from my involvement with the Genomics Forum (now sadly an ex-Forum). The first event was at the Scottish Poetry Library and was about the poetry-genomics project that Matthias Wienroth (now at University of Northumbria) kicked off, some of us who took part in in chatted about the challenges of working on this interdisciplinary project which was designed to generate visual poems related to genetics through encouraging artists and scientists to work together. The outputs of that project are here.

The second event was at Looking Glass Books, to discuss the first findings of the ongoing What Scientists Read project, initiated by Sarah Dillon and Christine Knight. Too often the interaction between science and literature is presented as a one-way flow, the assumption being that writers are influenced by science but not vice versa. This project tests that assumption by asking scientists what they read and how it has influenced their work.

Somewhat related to that; I wrote an article for the Scotsman about ‘The Falling Sky’ and the interaction between astronomy and literature.

And on Lablit I reviewed the latest book ‘The Day without Yesterday’ by another ex-astronomer-now-writer, Stuart Clark, this novel completes his great historical trilogy about astronomy from Kepler to Einstein.

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Galaxies, metaphors and what-not

When I started writing my novel, I knew I wanted to explore the effect of an apparent challenge to the Big Bang theory upon an individual character as well as the astronomical community as a whole. But what form could this challenge take? The theory is based on several well-established pieces of observational evidence, principally the uniform nature of the cosmic microwave background, the relative abundances of the primordial elements such as hydrogen and helium, the global evolution of galaxies, and finally the one-to-one relationship between recessional velocity of the Universe (i.e. redshift) and the distance to galaxies. I ended up choosing the last of these. In the book it is challenged when Jeanette and her colleague find an apparent physical link between galaxies at different redshifts.

Why did I decide on this particular aspect of the Big Bang? Because it was relatively straightforward to explain, and I hoped to build a visual picture in readers’ minds of these galaxies the way that Jeanette and others might see them on the computer screen, two blobs with a string of ‘something’ between them. And as Jeanette struggles with connecting and communicating with other people in her life, and has done since her difficult childhood it seemed to me to be an inevitable metaphor for her isolation. Perhaps that’s why she’s so keen to ‘see’ this connection. It may console her for the lack of connnections around her.

I’m wary of books that use science simply as metaphor for characters’ feelings, because science is more than that. It offers us a way of seeing the external physical world; it doesn’t solely exist to reflect our own desires and needs back at us. This (mis)use of science as metaphor seems to me to be fundamentally pre-Copernican.

In spite of that, I used the image of connected galaxies as a way of exploring Jeanette’s view of life. But I hope I explored it for its own sake, and showed that the connected galaxies resonate with Jeanette because of the emotions she’s invested in her understanding of the Big Bang theory. I think any metaphor needs to be earned, you can’t string together two unconnected ideas or images just for the sake of pretty words. It needs to be somehow ‘real’.

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‘I’m not a boy scout!’

People have asked me what genre I write, and I’ve often been introduced at events as a science fiction author. It’s not how I see myself, but who’s to say that they’re wrong? The boundary between ‘literary’ fiction (which I think I write) and science fiction is so blurred it may not be a proper boundary at all. And while I like to think of myself as a literary writer I have a horrible feeling this may just be simple snobbishness.

The ‘establishment’ argument for the supremacy of literary fiction over other types of expression is that the former is simply better written; it’s more closely concerned with style. Champions of literary genre also argue this form is less likely to be circumscribed by convention, it’s the genre where anything goes.

But even though literary fiction happens to be my favourite genre as a reader, I think this is a false argument for many reasons. Other genres’ lesser concern for language may mean they’re more capable of examining the real world and use their tropes to be more adventurous; crime fiction has shown itself capable of examining power structures and corruption. Science fiction can anticipate scientific developments and their impact on society.

Our desire to categorise writing into genres and sub-genres is a human tendency. It happens elsewhere in life too. I’ve just received an email from a reader who has pointed out a mistake in my novel, and as this reader points out, this sort of mistake would only be made by an astrophysicist trying to pass herself as a ‘proper’ astronomer, i.e. someone who actually knows the night sky and the names of the stars and constellations in it (this tends to be truer of amateur astronomers than professional ones because they spend more time actually looking at the sky).

There’s the apocryphal story of a famous astrophysicist out for a walk one night with a friend who pointed up at the sky and asked ‘What’s the name of that star?’ ‘How should I know?’ Prof answered, ‘I’m an astrophysicist, not a boy scout!’

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The Falling Sky

My first novel ‘The Falling Sky’ is published today by Freight Books. This is the latest stage in a long journey because I started writing it several years ago, and I still can’t quite believe that it actually exists as a book. I wrote it because I wanted to convey what it feels like to be an astronomer, studying unimaginably distant objects but still having to wrestle with the complexities of everyday life.

The protagonist of the book, Jeanette, works on the Big Bang theory which tells us how the Universe was created and developed. She finds this more straightforward than coming to terms with her own history, and a childhood that has been defined by loss and silence. Her attachment to the Big Bang theory is partly due to its appeal as a story of origins; it gives her life structure and order. She doesn’t realise how much she relies on it until she discovers something that may undermine it…

I realised as I was working on this novel, that writing fiction can be similar to doing science. I had set up the premise, or the initial conditions for the experiment, and I had to fulfil the premise or conduct that experiment by writing the novel. There was only one way of writing it that was right. Several plot developments had to be axed because they felt wrong. Even though fiction is not real, it still has to be true in both the writer’s and the readers’ heads.

There’s already been one very nice review in the Daily Mail, and I’ll be talking about the book, at a couple of events this month:

Sunday 14th April, with Tendai Huchu at Aye Write! in Glasgow

Wednesday 24th April at Looking Glass Books in Edinburgh

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Brecht and Galileo and – us

Now that my novel is done and dusted I’ve been concentrating on writing a collection of short stories inspired by science. One of the stories is about Brecht writing, and then rewriting, his play ‘Life of Galileo’ (Timely, because there’s a new production by the RSC).

Brecht wrote the first version of this play in Norway in 1938. In this version he’s a cunning man, publicly telling the Catholic Church and its inquisitors what they want to hear, but only as a strategy for survival so that he can secretly carry on with his work. He’s a typical Brechtian anti-hero, fully able to subvert the power of the authorities for his own purposes.

Partly prompted by the use of atom bombs at the end of the second World War Brecht did a major rewrite of the play, when he was living in the USA in 1947. This version shows Galileo as someone who recants his life work, simply out of fear of the Inquisition. Even when other characters in the play attempt to put a better gloss on his actions, he corrects them and says he was afraid of being tortured, and that is why he gave in. In this version Galileo has a long speech at the end of the play in which he says;

‘Science’s sole aim must be to lighten the burden of human existence. If the scientists, brought to heel by self-interested rulers, limit themselves to piling up knowledge for knowledge’s sake then science can be crippled and your new machines will lead to nothing but new impositions. Your cry of triumph at some new achievement will be echoed by a universal cry of horror. As a scientist I had a unique opportunity. Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind’s benefit.’

So the moral of the story has completely changed, from ‘subvert the authorities in any way possible; the ends justify the means’ to ‘behave in such a way as to set an example to others; the means are all-important’.

Brecht portrayed Galileo as the first of modern scientists, someone who had a responsibility to set an example of how scientists should engage with the authorities. He saw a link between Galileo failing to stand up to the Inquisition and the scientists in the Manhattan project agreeing to develop a nuclear bomb for the US Government, and he meant Galileo’s despairing speech to be taken as a cry of warning to twentieth century scientists.

But the reality of the interaction between scientists and the authorities (whether they’re the Church or a democratically elected Government) is rather more complex, and perhaps Brecht knew this. At the same time as Galileo denies that he has done anything to undermine the authorities, he is giving a copy of his forbidden manuscript to a friend so it can be smuggled out of Italy. His actions challenge any simplistic interpretation of his words.

And Brecht’s own actions somewhat complicate his interpretation of how scientists should behave.  Shortly after ‘Life of Galileo’ was given its first English performance in Los Angeles, Brecht was summoned to give evidence to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was just beginning to consider the influence of organised Communist activities in the USA. Brecht was one of the very first people required to give evidence and initially decided against doing so. However he then changed his mind, gave evidence and left the USA for good the next day.

As ever with Brecht, there is more than one interpretation of his actions. By appearing at HUAC, he helped to validate the process and this was explicitly acknowledged by the Chairman who thanked him for setting a good example to the other witnesses. But if you watch his testimony, it becomes apparent that he was also mocking the whole set-up, and his performance made the onlookers laugh. So again, he undermines his own text and reminds us that we are more complex  than any single belief system can account for.

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The Next Big Thing!

My friend and great writer Roy Gill tagged me in his blog last week as part of an ongoing chain of book/writer recommendations asking and answering questions about their work. This week I’m in the sticky black leather seat answering the questions and passing the baton onto some more great writers.

• What is the working title of your next book?

It’s shuttling backwards and forwards between two titles at the moment – ‘Wider than the Sky’ or ‘The Falling Sky’.

• Where did the idea come from for the book?

I really wanted to write a novel about astronomy – and about what it’s actually like to be a scientist, excited about trying to understand the Universe and getting things wrong.

• What genre does your book fall under?

Generally, literary fiction. More precisely, ‘lablit’ which is literature about real science, not made up stuff. See www.lablit.com for more examples.

• What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I can’t yet visualise any actors inhabiting my characters.  Apart from maybe Michael Gambon as the Death Star, the boss of the main character.

• What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Jeanette finds evidence that contradicts the Big Bang theory. Will this make her career or destroy her universe? (whoops – two sentences)

• Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’ll be published by Freight, who have already published an excerpt from it in Gutter.

• How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I wrote it on and off over a period of about two years. Currently on the fourth and hopefully final draft.

• What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

‘Intuition’ by Allegra Goodman, or ‘Brazzaville Beach’ by William Boyd. Two of my favourite books; both are complex tales about scientists’ lives.

• Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was partly inspired by a fantastic book by Jane Gardam called ‘A Long Way from Verona’, about a twelve year old girl who realises she is a writer. I read this when I was the same age as the protagonist and it made me think about becoming a writer. I’ve tried to emulate its freshness and wit in my book.  Also, I wanted to write a book that I wanted to read, about science.

• What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s set in Edinburgh at the real-life Royal Observatory, a fabulous Victorian gothic pile where I did my PhD. And also partly in Chile – one of the best countries in the world for astronomy.

That’s it from me! I’m handing over to the next bunch of writers, who’ll be answering these questions on their sites next week:

Zoe Venditozzi whose darkly funny debut novel, Anywhere’s Better Than Here, has been described as “an understated literary champ” and “funny, believable and all too human”.

John Ward is the author of 4 books of young adult fantasy fiction, and is currently working on an adult novel (but not an ‘adult’ one – no shades of grey, just black & white)

Anne Strathie is the biographer of Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, one of the five men who reached the South Pole with Captain Scott in 1912. I’ll be hosting Anne’s Next Big Thing on my blog next week.

Russell Jones is a poet and editor of Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK, which is out 15th November 2012.

Kate Tough’s latest short story is on exhibit in London. She’s working with Ayrshire teens on sea-themed poetry and thereafter will be submerged in editing her first novel (due out in 2013).

Tracey S. Rosenberg is the author of the forthcoming chapbook  ‘Lipstick is always a plus’; a poetry collection tracing a path from emptiness to joy, with stops along the way for hot chocolate and lipstick. “Through varied subject matter and fresh perspective, Rosenberg’s crystalline poems confront and entertain readers with the unexpected.” – Sarah Ream, editor of poetryinternational.org.

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Wigtown Book Festival ‘Dark Skies’ theme

I’ve been the writer-in-residence at Wigtown Book Festival and amongst other activities, I’ve been blogging on their Dark Skies theme. You can find the blogs here

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Report from EdBookFest

I’m blogging on the Edinburgh Book Festival over at Genotype.

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