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.

 

After the party

It’s the first day of September, and Edinburgh breathes again.

For locals, whether we love or loathe the culture, chaos and crowds of the Festivals, their departure can feel like a special moment. The circus is packed away, and the city begins to settle back into itself. The sudden peace is often accompanied by the first hint of a change in the weather, a suggestion that autumn won’t be long.

This year I’ve spent a lot of time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh Book Fringe. As well as readings, discussions and literary cabaret there have been book launches and parties and a steady and very welcome stream of guests – plenty of opportunities to meet up with old writing friends, and to make new ones. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s also been distracting; I’ve written very little in the past couple of weeks, and lack of time isn’t the only reason. Just as important is the lack of mental space. Of silence.

I recently came across an article that describes how mice exposed to silence (rather than white noise, music or baby mouse calls) developed new, functioning neurons in the areas of the brain associated with memory and the senses. The study hasn’t been replicated in humans, but the idea of silence as actively beneficial resonates with my own experience of quiet as something restorative. In common with many writers I’m more introvert than extrovert: though I don’t think I could go as far as Sara Maitland, embracing silence as a way of life, frequent spells of quiet time and time spent alone are essential to me. It’s why I work in a studio space with no internet, away from the noiseless noise of email and social media – and why I’m hopeful about what will happen to my work rate when I take up a Hawthornden Fellowship this winter and experience a whole month of silence.

Yesterday, walking through the quiet city streets, I found myself talking out loud. Voice, for a writer, is a kind of metaphor encompassing what is said and how it’s expressed as well as technical issues like characterisation and point of view. As I heard myself narrating my thoughts, it struck me that what I was doing was literally tuning back in to my own voice, now it was audible again in this emptier, quieter space. Preparing to get back to writing, now the party’s over.

writing still lifeThis quiet moment reminds me that a writer’s job is to make the work, and to make it as well as she can. The rest of it – the events, the reviews, the interviews, all the stuff that Helen Dunmore calls litbiz – is just glitter and confetti; as shallow as those artfully arranged instagram pics of colourful notebooks or shiny MacBooks accessorised with coffee and croissants, filtered and hashtagged: #amwriting #writerslife.

The truth of it is, no matter how perfect your notebook-and-coffee still-life seems in the sun streaming through the cafe window, you still have to take yourself off on your own to a silent place – actual or metaphorical – and focus on what matters. #shutupandwrite.  #writerslife. #nofilter.

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.