Category Archives: Reading

Candlemaker Row by cyocum, under Creative Commons license

Umbrellas of Edinburgh

Umbrellas of Edinburgh (Freight Books) is a new anthology of poems and stories about Edinburgh, including my short fiction ‘Candlemaker Row’. Here’s the story behind the story…

The city of Edinburgh has been thoroughly explored in literature, and to write about it is to enter unavoidably into a dialogue with a lineage of authors from James Hogg, Robert Fergusson, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, through Muriel Spark and Norman McCaig, all the way up to the present day and Ian Rankin, Candia McWilliam, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith. The city is a literary palimpsest, the opposite of Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow:

‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’ ‘Because nobody imagines living here,’ said Thaw […] ‘Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets.’

– Alasdair Gray, Lanark, A Life in Four Books (1981, London: Picador)


By contrast the ideas and images of Edinburgh as a split city – its towering heights and its great depths; its clean, wealthy elegance and its dark, seedy poverty; its convenient embodiment of Calvinist notions of good and evil, and the dualism that’s strongly associated with Scottish fiction – have become so familiar as to verge on cliche.

And yet … they’re strongly present in my direct, lived experience of the city; they are woven through my perceptions, shaping my imaginative response. When I tried to write about the place I’ve lived for twenty years, the ghosts of so many literary Edinburghs created a very specific anxiety of influence: it seemed there was no part of Edinburgh that hadn’t been imaginatively claimed; literally, no space for a fresh response. I realised I would need to find a way to create this space, if I was to write a story that offered anything unexpected, any kind of new perspective.

To achieve this, I employed two strategies. The first was destructive: razing the city in an unspecified disaster, I thought, would clear the ground and allow me to imaginatively reconstruct the city afresh. The second was more subtle: privileging smell as a sensory response to place, rather than the more usually dominant sight and sound, held the possibility of creating a different map of the city. The story that emerged was of a specialist in the technology of virtual smells, working on a project to recreate the lost city as a virtual reality – an idea inspired in part by Kate McLean’s ‘smellmap’ of Edinburgh.

In the early stages of writing this story I knew I was exploring the idea of home, but other, interconnected ideas quickly emerged – of what we mean when we talk about the ‘real Edinburgh’; of one small part of a city so much reproduced that it comes to stand for the whole; of the validity and veracity of the imaginative reconstruction of a city based on second-hand source material – a copy based on copies; of ownership of place. All of these layers of story can be read as illustrative of my initial difficulties in writing about Edinburgh. In another way, too, this is a story about the process of writing creatively, since in writing the city I was engaged in the same kind of imaginative recreation as my narrator: both of us rendering a physical place in code (binary or linguistic) and employing sensory detail to create a convincing setting for a future participant (virtual reality user or story reader).

Perhaps any story about Edinburgh must be built on unsettled foundations, since it could be argued that the city itself is uncanny: the Old Town embodying the city’s dark, haunted past, surmounted by the order and rationality of New Town but refusing to remain hidden, persisting instead as central to representations of Edinburgh. ‘Candlemaker Row’ turned out to be a double ghost story: haunted (perhaps) by the narrator’s lost lover, a literal ghost in the machine of the virtual Edinburgh; and by a disembodied city that’s ‘built from code and light’, an Edinburgh raised from the dead.

Umbrellas of Edinburgh is available now from Freight Books.


Slow! by Alex Smith, Creative Commons licence

The slow brain theory of creativity

I’ve always been in awe of writers who can turn out a book every year. It’s often a contractual requirement for writers working in genres like crime and thrillers, but some literary fiction writers too are immensely prolific, from the firmly established like Joyce Carol Oates to the up-and-coming like Iain Maloney, whose latest novel The Waves Burn Bright is on top of my towering to-read pile.

Myself, I’m a slow writer. Sometimes – often – I find this frustrating. At every stage, from the emergence of a new idea and the first scribbled notes and maps to the multiple rewrites and edits, my progress is slower than that of most writers I know.

Recently, I listened to a repeat of Grayson Perry’s On Creativity and Imagination, an exploration of what we mean by creativity and how we might encourage it. I like the way Perry talks about art: he has a fine sense of the ridiculousness of much creative endeavour, as well as its importance, combined with what seems like an endless curiosity about the world around him. In this programme he describes the sign he has hanging over his workspace that says CREATIVITY IS MISTAKES – which dovetails neatly with my own favourite mantra, NOTHING IS WASTED (okay, that short story really didn’t come out like you meant it to, but look at it from another angle and there may be the germ of a novel in there, or at least a 1000-word flash fiction; and yes, you may have spent years working on an unpublishable novel, but you needed to write that mistake in order to write the next success).

But what really struck me in Perry’s exploration was a piece of research that suggests the most creative people may be those who think more slowly than others. The hypothesis is that the neurons in our brains are wrapped in white matter largely made up of fatty myelin sheaths, and the lower the integrity of this white matter the more slowly our neurons transmit information in the region connecting the pre-frontal cortex to the thalamus.  This slowness is associated with greater divergent thinking – a common test of creativity.

That a ‘slow brain’ should be particularly creative seems at the same time both counter-intuitive and absolutely spot on. We tend to associate creativity with a quick intelligence – and indeed it seems this ‘slow brain’ creativity can co-exist alongside higher integrity white matter in the cortex, associated with increased intelligence; so the same brain can be both fast and slow. But a slow model of creativity makes sense of much ‘pre-writing’ activity which we might otherwise see as procrastination. Sleep. Daydreams. Meandering walks. Andrew Motion’s mild flu and Lem-Sip. All of these more or less passive activities can work as active strategies to allow material to emerge, to give our brains the space to start making new patterns, new connections.

What does this mean for how we organise ourselves and our work? It might help in understanding our relationship with deadlines; when they might be helpful, and when they’re more likely to be counter-productive. For me a deadline can be incredibly useful, forcing me to commit my words and thoughts to paper or screen – but this is only possible once the slow, organic phase has done its work. Until then, the only thing I’ll produce to a deadline is stress, tantrums and ultimately failure.

As well as a slow writer, these days I’m also a slower reader than I used to be, and at times I feel I’m a slow thinker too, taking a while to build up ideas and arguments and to process new pieces of information. The idea of a slow creative brain makes me feel better about this. It’s only by allowing the time for unexpected connections to occur that later – in the act of writing – I can learn the shape of the new thing I’m making, and understand what it is that I mean to say.

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

26 Children’s Winters

What is it that prompts you to really pay attention to an object in a museum, rather than letting your gaze skim across the surface? It could be a well-written label – or perhaps it could be a story, an anecdote or a poem…

26 is a not-for-profit organisation made up of writers, editors, publishers and others who work with words. It pursues its aim of ‘inspiring a greater love of words, in business and in life’ through all kinds of activities, the most visible of which is a series of exhibitions and books that ask writers to respond to objects, places, artworks, stories and more.

26 Children’s Winters is the latest 26 exhibition, currently on show at the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood; I was one of 26 writers invited to respond to a specially chosen object from the museum’s collection. Each of us was asked to create a ‘sestude’: the signature literary form of 26, this can be a poem or a piece of prose, but must consist of exactly 62 words. It’s quite a challenge – especially when your allocated object initially fails to inspire! I’ve written here about the process of creating my sestude.

The end result took an unusual form that made things tricky for the exhibition designers – but as you can see they did a great job of accommodating my awkward piece:

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

And here’s one of my favourite sestudes, by writer Lucy Harland:

Jigsaw Piece sestude by Lucy Harland
Jigsaw Piece by Lucy Harland

The project will raise money for It’s Good 2 Give, a small Scottish charity supporting children and young people with cancer.  The sestudes are a really engaging way of encouraging people to look closely at each object, and prompting memories and personal associations – and you can see them on show until 31 March 2016.

the editing stage

eBooks and digital immigrants

Apparently, today is Scottish eBook Day. Did you know this was a thing? No, me neither. But why shouldn’t there be a day to celebrate eBooks? The ease of reading and publishing in digital formats has shaken up the world of books, largely for the better. eBooks are arguably greener than their paper sisters, and the format is certainly more accessible for anyone with a visual impairment.

I was a fairly late adopter of eBook technology, but by the time my brothers, my sister and my 70-something parents had all fallen for their Kindles, I decided it was time to make the jump.

Pretty soon I was a convert, won over by price promotions and the instant availability of any title that might catch your eye. I remember running out of books halfway to the Outer Hebrides and downloading fresh sustenance on the deck of the CalMac ferry. I was reading more than ever before, racing through free classics, out-of-print gems and 99p daily deals.

Gradually, though, I noticed something odd about my reading. I kept forgetting things I’d usually remember – characters’ names, important plot points, even whether I’d read a book or not. Every book, every page looks alike on an eReader, and without the visual cues I was accustomed to – the jacket design that helps you remember a title; the typography that subtly contributes to the overall feeling of the book; the placement of a sentence on the left or the right-hand page, top or bottom, near the start of the book or close to the end – my recollections were hazy. I still enjoyed what I was reading, but once I’d moved a book to my ‘read’ collection it slid too easily out of my mind.

My reading these days is 95% hard copy. Library books are even cheaper (and greener) than eBook promotions – and since I’m studying for a PhD, paper allows me to flip quickly to indexes and footnotes, and to annotate with pencil scribbles and sticky tabs. I still use my eReader for travelling, and for reading completed manuscripts; I’ve found it’s helpful in creating the distance you need in order to approach your own work, as far as possible, as a reader rather than an author. But if the digital world is divided into natives and immigrants, I’m in the latter camp: even at the editing stage, sometimes you can’t beat a print-out, a pair of scissors and some sellotape, sticky notes and a trusty red pen.

we know what fiction is...

Happy SA4QE!

Today would have been the 90th birthday of author Russell Hoban, who died in 2011. I discovered Russell Hoban in 2002, in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road. This beautiful split-image cover intrigued me:


The opening line drew me in, and the first short chapter captured me entirely.

The streets were lit but the sky was still light. She was waiting at a bus stop. A sign said BALSAMIC although there was nothing vinegary about the place, no friars and no Gilead in sight. There were nondescript buildings in warm colours, perhaps leaning a bit, perhaps painted on canvas. She was waiting for the bus; there were obscure figures queuing behind her.

That’s the second paragraph of Amaryllis Night and Day, and it brings together several of Hoban’s recurring concerns: blurred borders between what’s real and not-real, painting, London, and a playful exploration of language.

I’ve since read my way through most of Hoban’s novels at least once, often several times. He’s best known for Riddley Walker, which is certainly his most influential novel (David Mitchell and Will Self have both talked about how they drew on its extraordinary, broken language in their own experiments with future versions of English, in Cloud Atlas and The Book of Dave respectively). Riddley Walker is an astonishing, dense, infinitely re-readable book – but the far simpler Amaryllis Night and Day remains closest to my heart.

The same year I discovered Russell Hoban, SA4QE began. On every 4th of February, Hoban fans share quotations from his work – usually on yellow A4 paper (read Kleinzeit to find out why). Last year I left some of my favourite quotations in libraries and museums around Edinburgh:

This year I’ve planned badly – no yellow A4 paper! – but I’ll still be leaving quotations in appropriate places.. And if you don’t stumble across any yellow pages, you can follow SA4QE on Twitter and Facebook as well as

Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you.

Ghost story season

Charles Keeping lithographLast weekend the clocks went back, and today Hallowe’en seems to mark the start of the ghost story season. When it’s dark at 5pm, with autumnal weather held at a distance by the  warmth and flicker of the wood-burning stove, there’s something comforting as well as creepy about sinking into tales of hauntings. At the moment I’m searching particularly for contemporary uncanny short stories, for the PhD I’ve just started; here, any ghosts are as likely to be found haunting new technologies as crumbling old houses. But I’ll find time to revisit some classics, too. Last winter I bought a beautiful Folio edition of Ghost Stories of M.R. James, which I love as much for the illustrations as for the text. In these lithographs by Charles Keeping the palette is strictly limited, the textures are rich, and the images subtle – gesturing towards the half-glimpsed horrors of James’s tales.

Uncertainty is the currency of the best ghost stories: danger is always more terrifying when it’s suggested, rather than made explicit; where the author conceals what we urgently want (and don’t want, just as urgently) to see. The leaving-out is just as important as the putting-in: as is so often the case with stories, and pictures too, it’s all about knowing when to stop.