Monday, 23 January 2012

... read Harry Potter

SPOILER WARNING: the following blog post contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. But then again, so does the entire internet.

It was in 2008, when I stood blinking and nervous before a classroom of American teenagers, as part of my summer school teaching duties for Oxbridge Programs, that I was first made aware of a massive lacuna in my literary education. Yes, despite having completed an English degree at Oxford, read or seen all of Shakespeare's plays, and waded through Beowulf and Chaucer in the original, along with hundreds of other “canon” authors – I had never read Harry Potter.

My students simply could not believe it: to them, the Potter cycle was synonymous with childhood; for some, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorceror's Stone was the first book they could remember reading – and I, an educated person, an adult, a Brit, standing not 200 metres from Christ Church (where the Great Hall sequences are filmed) – I hadn't read a word of any of the books! Was it possible? How had I missed them? How could anyone survive adolescence without them? Was I even a person, or some sort of soulless English replicant, recently thawed after fifty years' dormancy in tundral ice?

Not my childhood.
 I was 21 years old when the first Potter was published, and well into my quarter-century by the time this series of children's books became such a cultural phenomenon that adults were allowed – even expected – to read them. Harsh though it is, I grew up without Harry Potter. I am of a pre-Rowling generation: my childhood classics were Blyton, Carroll, E. Nesbit, Tolkien, Diana Wynne Jones (to whom Rowling owes an acknowledged debt) and lots and lots of Golden Age sci-fi.

I'm sure I would have loved all seven Potter novels had they been available when I was 13, but I don't feel that my early life was a barren wasteland deprived of their magic. There, I've said it. Over the years, I've absorbed a bit of general knowledge about Harry and Hogwarts by osmosis (cultural references in other media, plus accidentally catching the second half of Goblet of Fire on TV – twice), but basically, I'm a Potter virgin. And to be honest, unless I was in front of a class of gobsmacked Americans, this hasn't bothered me unduly.

However, when there's a lot of fuss about something it's always worth setting aside the hype to experience it for yourself, so this week I've been reading the first in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and here's my book report.

Length and depth: 7/10
The first unexpected element is the length of the thing. Having been under the impression that most of Rowling's output requires a sturdy Bag for Life and gym-honed Yummy Mummy biceps to drag back from the bookshop, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Book One in the series comes in at only 223 (fairly closely-printed) pages. It's slim, slight, svelte; easy to drop into a bag or pocket and carry around to read on the bus. I thoroughly approved of this (apparently the long-windedness only sets in around Book Four) because it meant I could race through it in a couple of days (mostly, yes, on the bus), leaving plenty of time to think and write about it.

Secondly – well, although much has been made of the darker, adult elements of the later books, the first one really is for kids, isn't it? The first fifty pages or so, which are all about Harry's improbably miserable life living in the cupboard under the stairs at the home of the Dursleys, his improbably horrible uncle and aunt, certainly are. Lucky Harry also has an improbably spoilt cousin called Dudley, a fat bully who picks on him, and all in all you know you're in fantasy-land because in the real world a Surrey social worker would almost certainly have prosecuted Harry's guardians for improbable cruelty years ago. It's all pretty cartoonish, down to the names (Aunt Petunia) – and yet it's nominally set in our own world – the world of Muggle (non-magical) folk.

Cool shit happens to orphans: 9/10
But hey, that's children's literature for you: you can't be a protagonist unless you're an orphan, and the Law of Fairytale states that any parental substitute (evil stepmother, wicked uncle, etc.) will be at best inadequate, and at worst actively plotting to kill you. The Dursleys' neglect and beastliness stems from the fact that they know (as does the reader, of course) although Harry doesn't, that he is special: a wizard, in fact. So far, so back-jacket blurb. Mysterious letters start arriving for Harry and despite his uncle's desperate attempts to stop him learning what's in them, Harry's eventually informed he has a place at Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and whisked away to London by magical man-mountain Hagrid. Thank goodness for that.

This is, basically, where the slightly painful set-up melts away and the good stuff kicks in  (Chapter 5, Diagon Alley) and if you're pushed for time this is where you should start reading. Once in this secret, magical street, with a shedload of gold from Gringotts goblin bank, Harry is living the eleven-year-old's wet dream: he's rich, parentless, a sort of wizarding celebrity, and has piles of cash to spend on cool shit. Cue a montage of robe, cauldron, owl and wand-buying, a quick canter through the history of the magical versus Muggle world (for his benefit and ours) and then back on the train to the Dursleys' to wait a month until the beginning of term.

How do you solve a problem like Petunia?  5/10
A little sidebar about the Dursleys, while I'm here: it occurs to me that in saddling Harry with a nasty step-family who nonetheless have not been removed (yet) by divine or indeed profane intervention, Rowling has painted herself into a corner somewhat. There's no getting away from the fact that while Hogwarts may be his world in term-time, at “home” he's pretty much surrounded by people who hate and fear him, and that, I feel, is a problem.

IMHO, there are two ways to go with this: reconciliation (the Dursleys grow to understand, value and appreciate Harry, perhaps when he uses his powers – albeit reluctantly – to save them from serious peril) or full separation (the Dursleys are tricked or persuaded into endangering him, thus invalidating them as caregivers and immediately removing them from his family sphere: perhaps another, sympathetic relative will show up, or else Harry will be adopted by Hagrid). Not sure which it will be, or when, but I bet it's one of the two – unless Voldemort (murderer of Harry's parents and would-be assassin of Harry) manages to kill the Dursleys in trying to get to Harry and our hero has to move in with the Weasleys.

More cool shit: 8/10
That's all in the future, however. Here and now, once Harry gets on the train from platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross (which implies, according to the British railway map, that Hogwarts is somewhere in the North of England, along the line connecting London and Edinburgh) – it's all gravy. The Great British Boarding School Novel has begun, and this time it's magic.

One of the most delightful things about reading this book for the first time is the inventive and entertaining details with which Rowling scatters her world: even wizard money and wizard sweets are different – though somehow reminiscent – of their Muggle equivalents. Chocolate Frogs contain trading cards of famous wizards and witches: Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans are Jelly Bellies with an element of Russian Roulette (you really can get every flavour, from strawberry to bacon via earwax). Wizard photographs move and wave to you; owls deliver post; portraits talk, and the halls of Hogwarts are stalked by ghosts, poltergeists and the students' familiars (cats, toads or owls again). Not to mention Fluffy the three-headed dog, and (briefly) Hagrid's Norwegian Ridgeback dragon ...

Houses and Demographics: 6/10
The Sorting Hat was my third surprise: for some reason I'd got the impression that Harry, Ron and Hermione were all in different school houses, what with having different strengths. The four personality types into which the Sorting Hat divides you are, basically:

Brave (Gryffindor, confusingly represented not by a griffin but a lion)
Loyal (Hufflepuff – a dog symbol, surely? Nope, it's a badger …)
Clever (Ravenclaw – an eagle. Because eagles are well-known for their brains) and, drum roll please ...
EVIL (Slytherin, whose animal figurehead is a snake)

All right, I exaggerate slightly: the kids of Slytherin House are technically “ambitious” rather than evil, but as Harry's student nemesis and crashing snob Draco Malfoy and his sidekicks belong to it, and sinister Potions Master Severus Snape is head of it, these amount to pretty much the same thing. I'd have thought that to obviate the vast majority of strife, bullying, terrorism and attempted murder in Hogwarts, the school authorities would simply reject anyone assigned to Slytherin – but apparently there's some sort of quota system going on, and headmaster Dumbledore is not allowed to bounce the snaky ones to schools in other catchment areas. Shame.

As it goes, Harry, Hermione, Ron and Neville (the lovable loser of the bunch) are all in Gryffindor. Interestingly, according to my calculations based on bedcount of the new first-year intake (five boys' beds, double this for the girls = 10 new kids in Gryffindor, x 4 houses = 40 new kids per year, x 7 years) means there are fewer than 300 kids at Hogwarts – I'd got the impression from the descriptions that it was bigger, with around 500 students.

Anyway, of these 280, 2 ½ of them (or less than 1%) are not white. (This may, and I suspect will, change in later books). The half/not sure is the mysterious “Lee Jackson” who has dreadlocks (not exclusive to black people, of course), a name oddly reminiscent of the Cosby Show, and is generally considered to be cool. I'm not sure whether, by giving him all these characteristics, Rowling wishes Lee to be read as black without explicitly stating the fact, but let's charitably assume so. The other two (although only one of them ever appears more than once or says anything) are the presumably Asian Patil twins. Sorry minorities, that's your lot. Have fun at school! It seems that in terms of ethnic diversity, Hogwarts is not far off Midsomer Murders or rural Finland.

And yet, and yet … the constant threat of oppression by an outside world which does not recognise or understand their culture … the wizarding kids' almost total ignorance of the Muggle world around them (Ron is astonished to see a fifty-pence piece, and can't believe Muggle photos don't move) … is Hogwarts, perhaps, some sort of metaphor for ghettoised racial or religious communities, forced into secrecy and isolation by the threat of being crushed by the less enlightened, but far more numerous “Other” surrounding them? No, probably not. Moving on ..

Best bits
The Mirror of Erised – a rather brilliant object this, a mirror which shows “not your face, but your heart's desire”: when Harry looks into it, he sees the faces of his parents for the first time, and it's rather a touching scene. It's also pivotal in Harry's recovering the Philosopher's Stone later on (see below).

Professor Quirrell as villain. There, I've spoiled the end for you. Told you I would. Someone's trying to steal the Philosopher's Stone from its closely-guarded home underneath Hogwarts, and Harry and his friends are utterly convinced throughout that it's Snape – but it turns out to be stuttering, feeble Defence Against the Dark Arts master Quirrell, who's secretly in thrall to Big Bad Voldemort.
Where's Voldemort? OH MY GOD he's living in the back of Quirrell's head!!! A proper EEK moment when Quirrell takes off his turban and turns around, to show Harry Voldemort's face in the back of his skull.

Your Crimes Against Fashion Master welcomes you
The spells guarding the Stone. Every hero has to face obstacles, but the variety of traps and riddles Harry and friends have to get through is somewhat reminiscent of The Crystal Maze. All you need is Richard O'Brien going on about Mumsie and you've got yourself an early-90s gameshow. From live chess to a poisonous logic puzzle, though, they're fun and challenging – and, crucially, allow Ron and Hermione to help Harry significantly on his way.

The Quidditch scoring system: I won't bore you with a full rundown of the rules, but essentially, Quidditch can be, and usually is, won by a single player catching a single ball. There are several other players whose job it is to score with much less important balls, but given that the Golden Snitch is so ridiculously valuable that whoever catches it wins the game, it made me wonder why the rest of the team don't just toss their broomsticks aside and sod off the pitch, muttering “why bother?”

House point devaluation – House points are used to threaten and set Harry back at various points in the book, when he's caught breaking rules (pretty much every chapter). It starts off small, with Snape deducting one or two points for insolence in Potions class – but by Chapter 15, Professor McGonagall is stripping Harry & Co. of 50 points each for sneaking around the school after lights-out. The devaluation of the currency here is reminiscent of Weimar Germany, and moreover the number of points lost for a given misdemeanour seems to be completely random and decided by the demands of the plot.

How Harry gets the Stone – Dumbledore is particularly pleased with charming the Mirror of Erised so that only someone who wants to get the stone – but not use it personally to gain wealth or immortality – is able to wish it out of the mirror. But Professor Quirrell also wants the stone … not for money, or the Elixir of Life, but to give it to his master Voldemort. Just because he's planning to pass it on to Voldemort and Harry wants to give it back to Dumbledore should make no difference: neither desires it for himself, so technically Quirrell (who looks in the mirror first) should get it. Although obviously that would completely screw up the book's ending. But still.

However, nitpicking aside, I did really enjoy reading HP1, and I don't think I can sign off more aptly than by quoting the eerily prescient words of Professor McGonagall in Chapter 1:

“He'll be famous – a legend … there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!”

Amen to that, sister.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

... published a novel: 2 - Artwork

I love Sherlock Holmes. I’ve loved him since I was about 13 and discovered Arthur Conan Doyle’s work for the first time. I was thrilled by the characters, puzzled by the mysteries, but most of all enthralled by the setting; the atmosphere of Victorian London, elegant and sordid, gaslit and murky by turns. That's a major reason why I chose to set The Whores'Asylum in the 1880s – it was a world I enjoyed writing about, and one I felt I knew - well, as well as anyone born nearly 100 years later could.

Holmes gave me a sketch of the events”
You know where I'm going with this (or at least I hope you do, given that this post's about artwork) … the thing is, it was Sidney Paget's wonderful illustrations for the stories when they originally appeared in the Strand Magazine that really brought Holmes, Watson et al to life: Paget added the famous deerstalker and I think also the Ulster cape, for example. And what would be more appropriate for a Victorian novel (like, ooh, I don't know, mine) than an exquisite series of bookplates to accompany the narrative?

So when I was emailing my editor Juliet Annan at Fig Tree about the cover art for my book, I suggested, in a throwaway fashion, that it would be amazing to have some pictures of key scenes scattered through the text – it's a typically 'period' thing, so would be very much in the spirit of the novel – though I was sure (I said disingenuously) it would be far too expensive to consider …

To my delight Juliet said she loved – in fact, LOVED the idea – and immediately set about finding a suitable artist to work on the cover and illustrations. Score! All I had to do was go through the story and find some of the most visually dramatic scenes, then sit back and wait for them to be turned into fantastic Pagetesque black-and-white line drawings. I also had to comb the text for physical descriptions of the various characters (harder than it sounds, and even harder to keep them consistent – to my shame I discovered one minor character had been endowed with brown, green and blue eyes … this has now been fixed :)

I'm not one of those writers who has a crystal-clear picture of their characters in their head from the outset; I tend to build them up from the inside out. I knew this much: my eager young medical student Stephen Chapman (in some ways the hero of the novel, though only briefly a narrator) would be handsome and open-faced, with high, fair colouring – i.e. blond hair and blue eyes, and that to provide a visual contrast, Diana, the woman he falls for, would be black-haired and dark-eyed, with a “pale and interesting” complexion. (Needless to say, she's also quite a looker). But I wasn't visualising anyone in particular – as the authors of the brilliant How Not To Write a Novel say, playing the Julia Roberts/Tom Cruise plus-or-minus game (a Japanese Julia Roberts, a fat, bald Tom Cruise etc.) does nobody any favours.

Similarly, Edward Fraser, Chapman's best friend, who narrates much of the story, was outwardly very much sidekick/wingman material – a less confident Watson, a reticent, hesitant sort content to be outshone by his brilliant and dashing companion. He doesn't say much to everyone else; but he's got plenty going on in his head which the reader alone is privy to. He emerged as a lean, stooping chap with receding hair of “a peculiar dark auburn colour” - always dressed in black, as befits a student of theology with limited means, and appearing rather older than Chapman, though the two are almost the same age. Who did he look like? Himself. What did that mean? I didn't quite know – but I was aching to find out.

Kester's the villain of the piece, and though I based his “high, hoarse” voice on that of an ex, his looks, apart from his stone-cold grey eyes, are described as … well, nondescript. Here's Diana on Kester's appearance:

“He appeared so deceptively mild; he was not especially tall nor strong, and his countenance was somewhat plain – neither very handsome nor very hideous. His sole claim to beauty was a soft and sensual mouth, rosy as a girl’s, which contrasted eerily with his grey, fishlike eyes. He did not wear his vices in his face, as some men do, though perhaps he was yet too young for that. His aspect, when he was not drunken or angry, was unassuming. It would not be easy work to pick him out of a crowd. 

In short, in looks and bearing he was altogether quite ordinary. I wonder sometimes, when I think back on it, if that was not the very thing that haunted and enraged him. I wonder if he had been handsome, like Henry, or even very ugly, like poor Towers, he should have been a different man. I cannot say.”

The banality of evil made flesh, in fact.

Grow the hair, add a 'tache: Chapman!
The above, at any rate, was how my characters appeared to me and therefore in the text – but I didn't set to writing with a gallery of detailed portraits floating before my eyes. I didn't cast the (surely inevitable?) six-part TV adaptation in my head – well, not much, though Laurence Fox, if you're reading this, I'm willing to audition you for Chapman :) In short, I was open to however the artist decided to render the people in my book, because I love (even LOVE) having my work illustrated, ever since I had a short story on UntitledBooks and to my delight, it was accompanied by a fantastic picture by the superbly-named Sarah Buttery. There's something about seeing your characters afresh through somebody else's eyes that's completely intriguing and revelatory. 

First up, of course, was the cover – that needs to be sorted out before anything else so that the publisher has an image for their catalogue and for Amazon. The first artist Juliet found didn't work out, but then she settled on a great pastiche artist called Max Schindler, who came up with a rough sketch for us to look at (on the left).

The style was great, the shield design was awesome (I must stop using Americanisms, but somehow I don't want to) but the boaters had to go – it's not Zulieka Dobson after all – and some colour needed adding. 

Also, Diana (for it is she) was barefoot, and I wasn't sure why. Not to mention the wandering apostrophe in the title … He kindly took my comments on board, went away and came back with Mark 2 (the red version on the right below).

Loads better – but still, the picky pain-in-the-arse author in me worried about the expression on her face: did she look a bit bored? Was this the right message to be sending? And that cleavage – the title has whores in it, for sure, but Diana's not one of them; it felt a bit Katie Price for my taste. I tentatively expressed my views, and my very patient editor passed them on to my very patient artist. Third time lucky, we hoped (see below).

Bingo! That was the one – I loved Diana's new wistful expression, and she didn't have everything in the window either. Much more suitable. This turned out to be the final cover, and I'm immensely glad it did, because everyone I've shown it to so far has really liked it. It looks even more spectacular in real life, because it's embossed and debossed (new word) with a textured, cloth-effect cover and GILDED as well – the shield/curtain bearing the title is shiny, shiny gold. In short, it will be a brand new paperback designed to look like a late 19th-century hardback. Love, love, love. I've got an advance proof of the cover hanging on my wall as I type and I keep on darting across the room to appreciate it anew.

So, the cover was ready – now for the illustrations! I was sent roughs of seven key scenes from the book, ranging from a formal ball to a strangulation, via a duel, a naked lady being painted, a prostitute soliciting in a dodgy tavern, and a masked orgy. (I feel I have ticked all the melodrama boxes here ...) Lucky Max had to deal with some more of my authorial objections as I pointed out that the tart looked too prosperous, the artist probably shouldn't be wearing a cliché – sorry, beret – and the duellist holding a gun in his left hand is actually seriously injured on that side. Moan, moan, moan – it's all us whining writers ever do …

However, in my defence, the reason I was so pernickety about the content of the illustrations is that each one is on the facing page to the scene actually described – so the reader having just read about one character's arm getting maimed would definitely be puzzled to see it whole again in the picture opposite. And in my artist's defence, he took what I said and produced the magnificent final versions you see below. Needless to say, I'm super happy with the result and extremely grateful to Juliet and Max for making it possible – mainly because I can't draw to save my life and am in awe of anyone who can.

I've taken the liberty of adding a short excerpt from the scene each illustration depicts, to put it in context … and, of course, because that's what Conan Doyle would do. Enjoy. 

Fraser,’ said Chapman, ‘may I present my good friends, Mrs. Diana Pelham and her cousin, Dr. Neil Cornell?'
‘Mrs. Pelham,’ I said, ‘surely I have had the honour of meeting you before?’
Before me stood Valenti in a paint-smeared smock, his palette in one hand, his paintbrush in the other, and his mouth a perfect ‘O’ of surprise. Behind him, only partially obscured by the canvas, was his model goddess, frantically clutching a volume of white gauze ...

 'Ten!’ cried March. Valenti swivelled to face Hereward, small and far away, ethereal now in the mist rising from the green earth, Jameson at his side. I had been praying all night; silently, I prayed again. 
'Oh for God’s sake just sit, Fraser,’ said Hereward impatiently.
You look like a travelling-salesman. If you stand upon ceremony you’ll stay there till you drop.'

Come on, Doctor,’ Sukey wheedled, soft and sloppy, ‘pour a girl a glass.’ 
'Teasing?' snarled Kester, ' I’ll tease her, the impudent bitch. 
I’ll tease the damned life out of her!’ 
Before he could gasp for breath, I jerked the rough noose back, crashing his skull against the iron gate, and pulled the leather tight about his throat, leaning into it with all my bodily might.


Monday, 9 January 2012

... seen Jaws

First off, an apology: 
I'd like to say I have never failed to update a blog for two months, but sadly it would be a massive lie. In my defence I spent the run up to Christmas working on what will hopefully become my second novel, but I've now made a resolution to keep updating this every Monday - bank holidays excepted :)

WARNING: the following blog post contains spoilers. However, as until a few days ago I seem to have been the only person in the Western world who hadn't seen Jaws, that probably won't matter.

So, Jaws. How have I avoided it all these years? Not deliberately, that's for sure. I like horror films, admire Spielberg and find sharks fascinating. But somehow, I never got around to seeing the ultimate shark film, even by accident, until the other night.

The first surprise of the film, for me, was that it starts off in a mildly racy, even soft-porny fashion, with a teenage party amid the dunes of an idyllic beach. A pretty blonde girl is making eyes at a pretty blond boy as the others drink and chat; soon enough, naturally, she's running towards the ocean pulling her clothes off, in order to entice him into a midnight swim. This scene is an interesting combination of twilit side-boob and a rising sense of dread. Will the adorable pair live happily ever after, frolicking naked in the waves, or will this scrummy morsel of Seventies totty get EATEN BY A SHARK?