One to make you think…

The Edinburgh launch of A User’s Guide To Make-Believe at Waterstones West End has now sold out  – but I’ll also be taking part in a reading and panel discussion at Edinburgh’s Lighthouse Books on 12 March. This event brings together four very different writers with a common concern of imagining what our world could look like, and I’m intrigued as to what might emerge.

Meanwhile there have been some lovely and generous reviews of A User’s Guide To Make-Believe, and I’m particularly delighted with this from Allan Massie in The Scotsman:

‘Jane Alexander taps into anxieties about data mining, privacy and technology and spins a compelling thrilled laced with paranoia … while this novel succeeds as entertainment, it is also one to make you think.’

One to watch for 2020

Just before Christmas I was interviewed about A User’s Guide To Make-Believe for The Scotsman Magazine. I’m thrilled that the book has been chosen as one of their cultural highlights of the year ahead, and with what the interviewer said about it:

A User’s Guide To Make-Believe does a lot more than merely imagine what would happen if we could step into the world of virtual reality as easily as using an asthma inhaler … What Alexander is trying to do is quite different: to look at how virtual reality would change us […] The book made me think about virtual reality in far greater depth than I can imagine Black Mirror ever doing.’

Advance quotes for A User’s Guide To Make-Believe

I’m delighted to share a couple of advance quotes for A User’s Guide To Make-Believe. Christina Dalcher, author of dystopian thriller Vox, says:

Ask not what technology can do for you, but what it can do to you. That’s the terrifying message lurking inside the pages of Jane Alexander’s all-to-real novel about virtual reality gone wrong. Warning: You may rethink your phone settings after reading’

And Helen Sedgwick, author of speculative feminist novel The Growing Season, says:

‘Jane Alexander is one of the most innovative and exciting writers around; A User’s Guide To Make-Believe compels you to enter its world and refuses to let you out. Read it, read it now!’

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.