The Spirit of the Bard

Neil Gaiman and Four Play at Usher Hall, Edinburgh. They said "no cameras".... but not "no sketchbooks". Illustration by the author (this author).

Neil Gaiman and Four Play at Usher Hall, Edinburgh. They said “no cameras”…. but not “no sketchbooks”. Illustration by the author (this author).

Tonight I was fortunate enough to go to a performance by Neil Gaiman who was reading his latest book, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. It was held in Edinburgh’s wonderful Usher Hall, and from what I could tell, it was completely sold out. I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the publishing industry lately (as every author has been) and the show tonight brought home to me something that I’ve been noticing in all of the chatter, and that is that there are many writing fashions that are quickly falling — but not as quickly as the ones that are rising — but also that the pure and eternal element of story is still intact and as vital as ever; vital in the sense that it is alive, aware, and powerful.

Neil Gaiman posterMr Gaiman shared his stage with a very excellent Australian string quartet called FourPlay, who were able to make four instruments sound like sixteen. With the artwork of Eddie Campbell projected on a screen, FourPlay and were endlessly inventive in creating background moods, sounds, tones, and melodies to accompany the main reading, although they also performed their own work, and on two occasions backed Mr Gaiman as he sung — something I personally was not aware that he did, and I was impressed that he did it well. There were two short stories read, as well as the advertised novella which is a wonderful shell game of morality, thwarting the reader’s (listener’s) predictions as to exactly what kind of moral tale it is.

It was a wonderful evening, and all of it raised mixed emotions in me. On a very selfish level, I was wondering if this is what it took now for authors to hack it in the industry. Was it not enough to only write a book, but were we all now required to go on the road and find new ways to promote it? To bring it to our audiences in person? And not only that, but to now be expected to sing?

If you’ve ever got to know an author personally, you know what a big ask that is. It isn’t that authors aren’t entertaining — we can very easily be the life of the party. It’s just that we are so rarely at parties. The reason that we become writers is because we enjoy being by ourselves just about all of the time. We hide, we close the door in secret. We work at night, we don’t have many friends because we just don’t have the time to invest in them. Sometimes we even change our names so it’s harder to find us. We’re the ones that sit at the back and watch. We shake your hand but do not look you in the eye. We make notes, go away to our rooms or garrets or sheds, and then a week or two later slide some pages under the door and ask for a cup of tea.

That’s what the life of the novelist has looked like for the last hundred years. Yes, there have been exceptions. There have been unabashedly shameless self-promoters, but there are also just as many authors who are so obscure, it’s possible that not even their editors knew who they were. Remind me to tell you about B. Traven some time, and is there anyone for a round of Who Wrote Shakespeare? Yet, tragically, it is not overstating the matter to say that the modern novelist, as we know it, is exiting our realm, just like the ghostly procession of Elves in The Fellowship of the Ring. We are going into the West, not to be seen again. The financial system will no longer support us. The advance for first time writers is below the poverty line. If we were being beaten out of every civilised country with clubs, that would not be more effective. Yes, the professional writer is going — your curse is to be left only with the amateur writers.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, 2014, Hardback Cover

That said, if we take an even wider perspective, if we back up so we can see a few more thousand years at a glance, we can see that the professional novelist is something of an irregularity. Throughout history there has been a constant mode of delivering story, and that is through a dedicated individual who would travel from village to village, town to town, hall to hall, and perform long ballads, short poems, usually to his own musical accompaniment. These people were called bards, or skalds, or seanchaidhthe, or rhapsodes, or any other number of formal and respected titles. They would perform existing works, or they would perform their own material. Never were they not expected to do so. All of the greats performed their own material Homer, Taliesin, King David, Shakespeare, Dickens… it was unquestioned, it was a part of the drive of storytelling itself — to tell stories to a live and immediate audience. By a quirk of technology, it has been cost effective for storytelling to be abstracted, and perhaps it’s best that that is no longer the case. Just as musicians are having to turn back to playing before live audiences for their bread, it is perhaps now the time for writers to likewise step up and join the ranks of our artistic ancestors. We should not think of readers anymore, we should think of listeners.

And the performance tonight was a playbook of how to operate such a model. It was, by turns, comforting, provoking, tear-jerking, disturbing, thrilling, and humorous. And it was so successful because Gaiman (et al,) has a foundational understanding of what storytelling is, which he showed by the short story he read The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury. It is something that is extremely easy to forget when you are sitting on your own in a room with a stack of paper. Storytelling is not about the teller, it is not about the caftsman, or even the craft. It is about the listener, and the use that the listener can put the stories to, to help, to heal, to warn, or to delight.

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James Bond’s Happily Ever After

Hardcover 1st Edition

Hardcover 1st Edition

(Warning – contains spoilers relating to the Ian Fleming James Bond novels. It is written to inspire those who have no intention of reading the novels to do so, and to remind those who have done so what was so amazing about the experience.)

A few years ago my friend and co-writer Russell Thompson and I bought boxed sets of the complete James Bond stories and started reading them together. I was struck — as everyone is who reads the books– by how much deeper Bond was portrayed in the books as opposed to the movies. In the movies Bond is a superhero, and no matter what happens to him in any one movie, by the beginning of the next, generally speaking, he is reset to his start position, ready for the next adventure.

But in the books, Bond is human. He still has the same adventures, but Fleming as a writer still seems to maintain a lagging concept of him as a man with finite strengths and abilities. He has a breaking point, and it is almost awe-inspiring to read through twelve novels and find that he is at the complete end of his physical and mental capacity. He is a broken man.

Really, the first crack appeared in the first book, Casino Royale. James Bond’s profound loss of Vesper Lynd was too emotionally intense even for the 2006 revisit/reboot massively underplayed it, distracting the viewer with a largely meaningless action sequence. Thus the teeth were completely taken out of the last line of the novel, one of the most shocking last lines in the history of literature. “The bitch is dead.” Claiming itself to be more faithful to the book, the filmmakers were comparatively at ease — possibly even gleeful in — portraying the torture scenes. But Bond in about to commit to a monogamous relationship evidently made them uncomfortable but this is the first important fixed point of Bond’s emotional character arc.

Penguin Paperback (2006)

Penguin Paperback (2006)

“Arc” is a technical writing term and it means that the character’s development starts off in one direction, is acted on by outside forces which affect its change, until it eventually lands somewhere new. And that is exactly what happens with Bond, by degrees, over twelve novels. The movies make so much of James Bond’s serial womanizing, which treats it as a sort of reward for completing his mission — usually blowing up something dangerous. In the books it’s shown — whether consciously by Fleming or not — as a symptom of Bond’s greater tragedy: that every woman that Bond gets close to gets killed. Vesper Lynd was the first — she and Bond were set to get married before she betrayed him and was killed. It took Bond, understandably, roughly nine novels to get over that loss and when he eventually did get married, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld and companion Irma Bunt kill her as they are driving away from the church. That is how  ends, with yet another devastating line delivered by Bond: “It’s quite all right. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see — you see, we’ve got all the time in the world.”

But just the act of working and killing for the Secret Service has taken its toll on Bond over almost a dozen missions and OHMSS starts with Bond drafting his resignation letter which he never hands in. By the time the penultimate novel, You Only Live Twice, begins, Bond is emotionally and physically on his metaphorical knees. Picking up some months after his wedding. Bond is still working for the secret service, but he has completely lost his edge, and it is suggested that he has bungled his last few assignments. Bond himself is dissatisfied and self-aware enough to know he has completely lost his taste for the hunt and is brought into M’s office, completely expecting to be put out to pasture. However, he is being sent on one last mission to try to shake him out of his funk.

The bulk of the story is concerned, rather monotonously, with recounting Bond trying to grasp Japanese culture, with mixed success. At the time it was written, in 1964, there had not been an awareness of Japanese culture that the 70s and 80s brought in terms of film, television, anime, and manga. In the 60s it was worth explaining what kung-fu, ninjas, haikus, sushi, etc., were on the assumption that a literary audience was not familiar with it, but by today’s standards the prose is needlessly pedantic and for a good hundred pages there is very little in the way of plot.

The movie (and its poster) decided to go in a different direction than the deep emotion portrayed in the book.

The movie (and its poster) decided to go in a different direction than the deep emotion portrayed in the book.

When the plot does kick in again, it is almost exactly the opposite of what a James Bond Movie viewer has been conditioned to expect — more along the lines of a Jason Bourne movie in fact. When Bond finds out that Blofeld and Irma Bund are in the fortress that it is his duty to keep an eye on, he basically suffers a mental break. His break-in to the fortress and subsequent tracking down of Blofeld are anything but heroic. And in the course of this it is revealed that Blofeld himself has been brought to his knees by Bond’s actions in the last two books. Bond’s arch-nemesis, in glorious character counterpoint, has just about as few material and psychical resources as Bond has. The final fight to the death is visceral, inelegant, and dirty. Blofeld has taken everything from Bond and, in a way, Bond has to give the rest of himself to Blofeld in order to destroy him.

When Bond is fished out of the ocean by the formidable woman he has been embedded with — a past movie star and oyster diver — he has completely lost his memory. He does not know his name, his job, his past adventures… nothing that has happened to him in the last eleven books. Even the British Secret Service believes him dead and in fact we have just read his obituary, written by his commander, M, and his secretary, Mary Goodnight. Kissy Suzuki, Bond’s rescuer, does not tell him any of the details of his old life. Instead she tells him that they are lovers and that he lives on the island with her. The months proceed and Bond continues to remember nothing of his past life and Kissy is shown to be completely instrumental in keeping all information from him.

459-1It could seem like a cheat to so transform Bond like this for his last adventure. To completely erase all of the events of the past very popular novels from Bond’s mind. But you are made to realise what exactly is being given Bond here — all of the hurt, the torture, and the mental anguish are being erased from Bond’s mind. His past lovers who have been killed are forgotten and it brings him peace. The physical exertions and bodily punishments which have left him a nervous wreck at the start of this book have likewise melted away. Even the spiritual effects that Bond, at times, is shown to experience, the toll of murdering for the State, and the moral incertitude which that brings, has been wiped clear. Bond also forgets how to have sex and Kissy go to the length of buying a sex manual and leaving it out for him to find. The serial womanizer has even forgotten the hollow and temporary pleasure he found in meaningless physicality. It has to be one of the greatest acts of healing by an author to main character in literary history. Only two others spring to my mind and that is Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Arthur Dent in So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish by Douglas Adams. At the end of the book, Bond is made whole and Bond is made happy. It is a beautiful and complete ending to the Bond saga.

…that having been said… it is not the end. There is a last page which opens the door for the next and final novel-length Bond adventure, The Man With The Golden Gun, which is a far less satisfying ending and which some argue is not a true Bond book at all, and the short-story collection Octopussy. I prefer to remember You Only Live Twice as the true ending, or the completion, of James Bond, the title of which is taken from a poem that Bond writes in the course of the story:

You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face.

Bond, after looking death in the face for the final time, has been absolved by his creator, and is born again.

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Family Fiction Interview

Family Fiction Edge Ross Lawhead

Below you can read the extended interview that the very kind people at FamilyFiction conducted with me. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have posted this, but I found the questions very thought provoking. To see the resulting article as it appeared in the magazine, you may click on the images underneath, or visit their website.

The burning question on everyone’s mind: Who is the man behind the cartoon avatar?
Me! Or as near to me as I can make it.

Can you give us a brief intro to your Ancient Earth series?
Gladly. The main premise is, in many ways, a standard pre-teen fantasy quest, but something goes wrong, and that is that the children win! The question I ask is “what if winning made everything much, much more unbelievably worse?” The natural follow-up to that question was: “How could they fix that? And how long would that take?” I’m very interested in the moral elements of story, and have been noticing that resolution in the stories being written today, even for Young Adult fiction, is often a violent resolution. I believe this is a contrivance because in the real world violence never fixes problems, it only causes more of them. I wanted to put those real-life consequences into a fantasy story and see what happened then.

Where does The Fearful Gates pick up this tale ?
The last day of the story, literally from sunrise to sunrise. The time frame of the series was unexpected, almost poetic. The first book takes place over an eight year span, the second book is roughly nine days, start to finish, the last book is almost exactly twenty-four hours.

Where did your initial inspiration for the series come from?
From some really unexpected places. I had an idea of what I thought was the perfect fantasy adventure for teens – I had the heroes, the villains, the setting, and even the last scene – but I couldn’t find a way to tie them all together. It was my dad who suggested the idea of using the legend of the sleeping knights which is prevalent not just in the United Kingdom, but also all over Europe. I looked into those stories and things started to click – I was able to make a lot of connections to elements I wanted to include, and the themes started to reinforce themselves. At that time as well I was really into Anglo-Saxon history and old English myth, so those elements all got folded into the series as well. Then my publisher suggested that I “age up” the story, so I ended up writing it for the adult market. And I’m glad I did, that gave me an opportunity to tell a much more complex story than I originally had in mind.

How has the series been received so far?
Really, really well. I was worried that people wouldn’t respond to something that was so intricate and subversive of very established Fantasy conventions. I was worried people wouldn’t accept dual male/ female main characters with as many flaws as I loaded onto them. But readers have really responded. I get more enthusiastic comments from women than men, which is great. There is still a dearth of fiction with strong, realistic women in it. I wrote this series like it would be my last Fantasy series ever, and I loaded it with enough ideas and themes to reward repeat reading – and I’m probably more surprised than anyone that people are actually reading them twice, without the last book even being published yet. It’s beyond flattering.

What’s the most memorable praise you’ve ever received about your series?
The first that comes to mind was actually meant as criticism. One of the readers posted online that it was a confusing book because it was hard to know who to root for – the good guys weren’t always good and the bad guys weren’t always bad – and there was always too much going on so it was hard to put it down and leave it for a few days. I was like, right on! And that’s really been the only criticism the series, and I’m quite pleased with that. These are the things that books excel at. Movies are so streamlined in both of those senses, and that very truncated style of storytelling has crept into a lot of fiction as well. I find a character who is only good, who goes through a straightforward mission without any real challenge or difficulty rather unrealistic and, ultimately, very boring.

What is your writing process like?
Crazy-making. I honestly try to be as methodical as I can. I work 9-5 hours six days a week writing. Then at some point, usually within the last third of the book, everything becomes derailed and I frantically dash around trying to keep it all together, working every hour on it that I can to beat the deadline. Then I start editing it and things get even more hectic. I’m a ruthless self-editor and I do that as I go along. I routinely cut out entire chapters from my books if I think they’re slowing the story down even a little. For book two I cut out an entire 12,000 word section from the first half. Pfft! Gone in a keystroke.

What can we expect for the future of the series?
After Book 3 ends? Not a lot! Book 3 is the absolute last part of the story, and you see exactly why there can never be a sequel once you read the last chapter. Which is a shame because when this was going to be a five-parter for teens I had planned an entire book that pretty much just took place in the Faerie land that I created. I had to cut that up and parcel it out in all three books and there was more I wanted to say there. It would be nice to spin something out of that, but I don’t know what story I would tell so I don’t think that will happen. As far as ‘The Realms Thereunder’ are concerned though, I’ve left it all on the field with this last one.

How do you view the current state of Speculative Fiction as a genre and where do you think it’s headed?
I think it’s very healthy at the moment. I doubt that hardcore SF has ever had such a wide exposure, even in the heydays of the 60s and 70s. Plus, looking at it purely as a genre, you can see it influencing just about every artistic medium, not only books but comics, movies, TV, everything. As far as SF&F books themselves are concerned, I think they’re heading where they’ve always been heading – straight to the core of our identity as human beings. That’s always what SF&F has been – not about robots, or aliens, or the future – it’s always been about us, people, right here, and right now. All that other stuff is just to show us more perfectly in contrast. We live in a world right now that is more futuristic than something written over fifty years ago, yet the entire canon of the genre is still absolutely relevant. The technology we buy today we receive with instructions on how to use it, but not why we should use it, or if it is right for us to use it, or what will happen to us if we use it too much. This is something that SF started discussing right from the start – the morality and the natural consequences of comfort and convenience; the end product of self-help and cell phones. Speculative Fiction has never been more important than now, and I’m encouraged that people are paying attention to it.

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The FEARFUL GATES released today

The Fearful Gates Ross LawheadThe last instalment of my fantasy trilogy is being released today. Please visit my books page to find out how to order it.

This ends my eight-year quest to tell what I believe every fantasy story should tell. From the start I had two scenes in mind — the first one, a boy in a church, and the last one, the same boy confronting the enemy. I was working with some very powerful themes and with the help and aid of my publisher, I was able to bring the story to you in a state that was better than I could have possibly hoped.

I left it all on the field with this last one though. And although I hope you do, I doubt you’ll ever read an ending to any story that is like this one.

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“The Wolf of Wall Street”: Mirror or Window? Acting or Act?

Wolf of Wall Street Poster

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (20013) is a very powerful and accomplished film. As a film school dropout, I can speak to Martin Scorsese’s abilities as a filmmaker and say that there was hardly a scene in it that was not directed with almost perfect craft and there was a good deal of invention (or judicious “borrowing”) in how the story was told. From a technical point of view, it was clear that a master in full control of his craft was at work, directing with a lively imagination and exuberant joy. And while it’s okay to admire the movie, it’s wrong to actually enjoy it, and these are the reasons why…

The story itself was a kind of Catch Me If You Can (2002) meets Wall Street (1987), set in the 90s. Its message is very clear. It is not about the love of money. Money is not what it is about. Money is talked about, and shown, a great deal, but what it is really about is greed. It is about what happens when completely unalloyed greed takes over a person’s heart, mind, and soul. We are repeatedly reminded by several characters that the money in itself is not important, it is the making of money that drives the characters in the movie, and therefore is what drives the plot. And all of the events in the story are told from Jordan Belfort’s point of view, related directly to the camera by Leonardo DiCaprio with unapologetic glee.Wolf of Wall Street

In fact, it’s glee that best describes the entire movie — from the very spirited performances that litter the film throughout to the very movements of the camera itself, all of it is suffused with glee, and its this glee that presents a moral issue in watching, let alone enjoying, this movie. Far beyond the constant nudity and drug use in this movie, the most arresting scene for me is an early one in which a woman who works in Belfort’s office is given $10,000 in cash, for the entertainment of her cheering (or is it jeering? We are never allowed to be certain) workmates. The tenor of the style is ironic — we are meant to appalled at the unabashed immorality of the excesses that we are witnessing a recreation of. However, the compelling thing about the hair cutting scene is this: her hair really is cut off. As far as I can tell, her hair is actually cut off. And the question I had at that point is: did the actress get paid $10,000 for that scene?

Somehow I doubt it. And it’s possible that there’s a very clever make-up artist somewhere that is feeling smug about themselves, but I think it’s far more likely that an actress was found to do it for considerably less than that. And if so, how is a woman shaving her head for money for the amusement of her office any more reprehensible than an actress shaving her head for the amusement of a worldwide audience? And so what is happening now to us watching this movie? Are we being presented with a window to view someone else’s depravity, or a mirror in order to view our own? And how impressed are we to be with a host of highly paid actors portraying self-entitled drugged-up hedonists? Are we watching acting or the act itself? The line between imitation and reality becomes very unsettlingly blurred.

Director with cast

Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie

So what, then, is the purpose of the movie? It makes its point very adeptly in the first half hour, with the most insightful and concise points of the movie given to us by a very on-form Matthew McConaughey. The following two and a half hours is merely elaboration of what is done and said in that one scene, hammered home with increasing profanity and debauchery. The pretense to educate is fairly thin. At two points the character of Jordan Belfort begins to tell the audience exactly how he was able to do what he did but then he stops himself, tells us that’s not what we’re interested in, and then invites us to witness more of the movies purported true-to-life grotesqueries. A much more informative, and therefore more profound, movie about such Wall Street shenanigans would be Enron: The Smartest Men In The Room (2005) or Inside Job (2010).

“Sell me this pen,” is a recurring demand in the movie. It is Belfort’s test of a person’s ability to generate money purely for the sake of acquisition. It’s the act of selling and it’s what moves money from your pocket into their’s. Throughout the movie “the buyer” is constantly debased and ridiculed and by paying to watch this movie we have given money to this pointless cavalcade, not of Wall Street’s self-absorbed over-indulgence, but of Hollywood’s. The patsies are us as we put our money into Scorsese and his studio’s pocket.

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