Category Archives: writing

Of Friends in Tombs, or ‘Shut Up, This Fight is Making your Party’: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1988

To me, Norman Mailer was one of the finest prose styl­ists of the twen­ti­eth century.

This excerpt is from Of a Fire on the Moon (1970, p 354):

Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was pre­sum­ably a way to describe the most curi­ous steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the lan­guage of Shakespeare — another to be unaware how rich was the vic­tim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms.

He was also a pub­lic intel­lec­tual, an icon­o­clast, and a buf­foon of epic proportions.

A report of a cock­tail party from 1977 (related by Lennon, p 513):

[Mailer] went imme­di­ately to the liv­ing room and as soon as he saw Vidal, Janklow [a bystander] said, “He charged.” Mailer told a Washington Post reporter that he had “been look­ing for Gore [Vidal] six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore, I just felt like but­ting him in the head, so I did.” Accounts vary, but it seems that Mailer threw a gin-and-tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head. …The host­ess walked in from the kit­chen, unhappy to see a fight at her party. “God, this is awful; some­body do some­thing,” she yelled. Clay Felker, at ring­side, said, “Shut up, this fight is mak­ing your party.”

Why did Mailer phys­ic­ally attack Vidal? Certainly it related to unkind words penned by the lat­ter. Certainly it com­bined the duellist’s need for viol­ent sat­is­fac­tion, Mailer’s idea of releas­ing the dogs of his mas­culin­ity, and a deeper, mys­tic notion that unmet chal­lenges cre­ate a psychic revolt at the level of the cell, can­cer being the result.

For Christmas, I was given Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J Michael Lennon. It’s an excel­lent bio­graphy that, among other things, con­trasts the pub­lic Mailer and the private. This blog post is not a review, but a record of thoughts I had while read­ing Lennon’s book.

Money in the Bank

Mailer spent his life look­ing for exper­i­ence. He did this, in part, because the chief dif­fi­culty for the nov­el­ist is obtain­ing mater­ial. Douglas Adams once wrote some­thing along these lines: “Your whole life is research for your first novel. The research for your second novel takes about a year, and is mostly spent in bookshops.”

Mailer did not spend much time in bookshops.

Graham Greene wrote:

The great advant­age of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listen­ing to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is use­ful to a writer, you see — every scrap, even the longest and most bor­ing of lunch­eon parties.

This is half of Mailer. He com­ple­men­ted it with a liv­ing exper­i­ment in the pur­suit of exper­i­ence. Too often, he agreed to capers–like trav­el­ling to Russia on the prom­ise of access to Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB files–for credit in the bank of mater­ial. The drugs provided as much illu­min­a­tion as a lit fuse. Here is the nadir of writ­ing The Deer Park (1955), as described by Lennon (p. 193):

Without drugs, he couldn’t write; he needed more than in the past. Along with marijuana, Seconal [a bar­bit­ur­ate], booze, cof­fee, and two packs of cigar­ettes a day, he began tak­ing a tran­quil­izer, Miltown… “Bombed and sapped and charged and stoned,” he lurched for­ward through May, feel­ing as he had when on [war-time] patrols in Luzon.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Mailer was an exist­en­tial­ist, a philo­soph­ical school defined more by a push away from clas­sic ortho­doxy than the pull of well-argued altern­at­ives. The heart of exist­en­tial­ism, accord­ing to Walter Kaufmann (1975, p. 75), is:

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repu­di­ation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and espe­cially of sys­tems, and a marked dis­sat­is­fac­tion with tra­di­tional philo­sophy as super­fi­cial, aca­demic, and remote from life

Mailer val­ued the primacy of exper­i­ence (as a truth, or some­thing closer to it that than the truth presen­ted by logical pos­it­iv­ism). The richer that exper­i­ence, the bet­ter. Hell-raising lives next door to this idea. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, sec­tion 283):

…Believe me, the secret of the greatest fruit­ful­ness and the greatest enjoy­ment of exist­ence is: to live dan­ger­ously! Build your cit­ies under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!

From the per­spect­ive of the writer, there is value in this. If exper­i­ence is credit, woe betide the over­drawn. But there is some danger, as most people will recog­nise, in throw­ing out the baby with the bathwa­ter. It can lead to the some­what bizarre state­ments like Mailer’s com­ments in this inter­view with William Buckley (Part 1 of 6) from 1968:

I don’t think in cat­egor­ies. I try to think in this way, that the world is bet­ter off if every so-called type in the world is bet­ter. In other words, it’s a bet­ter world when the cops get bet­ter and the crim­in­als get bet­ter. It’s a poorer world when the cops are dull and the crim­in­als are dull.

Mailer emerged at a time when a writer was seen as a trans­form­at­ive force. He was eager to assume the role of com­ment­ator and doer. His dis­tance from true power frus­trated him. Like Sergeant Robert Hearn in The Naked and The Dead and Menenhetet in Ancient Evenings, he wanted to be Merlin at Kennedy’s Camelot, but his over­tures to Jackie Kennedy were botched. Later, his influ­ence on the Clinton admin­is­tra­tion was neg­li­gible. Mailer’s life seems to have coin­cided with the decline (in America and the UK, at least) of the pub­lic intel­lec­tual. Today, our intel­lec­tu­als pro­duce BBC doc­u­ment­ary series and tie-in books. Easy to poo-poo. But I think the younger Mailer would have seized these oppor­tun­it­ies. He always wanted to trans­mit his ideas and lever change.

Technology Will Get You Nowhere

One such idea is the weak­ness of the arti­fi­cial. There is a moment in Of A Fire on the Moon in which Mailer takes the notion of acceleration–so fun­da­mental to rocketry–and applies it to the moon pro­gramme at large. Imagine the step from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Tranquility Base, the Moon; this, psych­ic­ally, is an accel­er­a­tion suf­fi­cient to push human­ity from one sphere to another. And yet the mis­sions that fol­low (with the excep­tion of Apollo 13) are both iter­at­ive and bor­ing. The accel­er­a­tion has been lost. With it, will, and with that, the moon pro­gramme itself. For Mailer, this is the treach­ery of tech­no­logy. It appears to be freighted with pos­sib­il­ity but this prop­erty only emphas­ises, once revealed, its emptiness.

The Spooky Art

There are notes in Lennon’s book about Mailer work­ing through his manu­scripts with edit­ors, line by line, stop­ping at every weak sen­tence. While his poetry was unsuc­cess­ful in most estim­a­tions, he brought a poet’s atten­tion to prose. Words were always read aloud. If a sen­tence had to be changed, this might alter its role in a para­graph or a pas­sage, and thus change the char­ac­ter of the pas­sage as a melody leads its key. The pas­sage would be writ­ten again.

And what pas­sages. Nothing stood between Mailer and his words. From Ancient Evenings:

My memory, which had given every prom­ise (in the first glow of moon­light) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and bar­ley, sweat and hus­bandry. By noon tomor­row, the riverb­ank would be an oven of mol­der­ing reeds. Domestic anim­als would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank–sheep and pigs, goats, assess, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul door of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the pluck­ing of a heavy string came a first intim­a­tion of sorrow.

The last few pages of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which relate to his death, are dif­fi­cult to read. I was reminded of the com­ments that Arthur Miller made in a BBC doc­u­ment­ary (‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004) shortly before his death. (Miller and Mailer grew up near each other, but they never really got on, and were never going to after Mailer’s book Marilyn.) In the doc­u­ment­ary Yentob, asks Miller what he thinks of his own death. Miller, as I recall, says:

I always think of Shakespeare and the light going out.

It takes a big tall writer like Miller to com­pare him­self to Shakespeare. But to con­sider all that exper­i­ence, the wick burn­ing low before going out, is troub­ling. The point is to illu­min­ate the party.

Curiosities in the Cabinet that is Interzone 248

Interzone 248

I first sub­scribed to Interzone a few years ago when I was writ­ing short fic­tion. For the unfa­mil­iar, Interzone is a British sci­ence fic­tion magazine, estab­lished in 1982, and a pay­ing mar­ket for writers.

In a few days, I’ll be start­ing a Masters in Creative Writing with Tibor Fischer, so my mind is turn­ing to sources of inter­est­ing short fic­tion. Interzone, which lands on my mat with some reg­u­lar­ity, is a good place to start.

The prob­lem of act­ing like a critic is its endo­scopic nature. You’re always at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing up your own arse. In my defence, as I per­form this age-old trick in the para­graphs below, I’m at least doing it positively.

Some com­ments, then.

Ad Astra

In this story by Carole Johnson, we join a female astro­naut called Lena on an exped­i­tion bey­ond the solar sys­tem. She is accom­pan­ied by her com­pan­ion Rick, who is going bonkers, as is she. There is a sense from the first para­graph that thinks are not going to end well for either.

We have a lot of sex because it’s a way around the things we can’t say. The things we can’t do. The things we don’t want to think. We’ve always been very good at that; even when we hate the very thought of one another, we can still fuck.

Lena engages the reader with her dir­ect style and her thought­ful­ness is con­sist­ent with her role as a per­son ques­tion­ing her situ­ation and her exist­ence. The prose is tight, the pacing rapid. From the begin­ning, the story is on pole for a podium finish.

The work reminded me of the novel The Explorer by James Smythe, in which a lone astro­naut con­tem­plates the oncom­ing jug­ger­naut of obli­vion. Where The Explorer got into dif­fi­culties by being too long and dif­fi­cult to believe (on its own terms), Ad Astra does not. They reach a sim­ilar resolution.

In a story that asks us to face the mys­tery ‘What is out there?’ there is a risk that, as the final card of the hand is turned over, the reader asks, ‘Is that all you had?’ This is, of course, prefer­able to the storyteller keep­ing the cards to her chest as we FADE TO BLACK.

Ad Astra suc­ceeds by mak­ing the last card a per­sonal one for Lena. She has not bluffed. She wins.

En Passant

Oblivion; Silent Running; Solaris

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension

In this effort from James Van Pelt, we have the his­tory of an American school from its Victorian incep­tion as a col­lec­tion of build­ings to its far future form: a sprawl­ing, mys­ter­i­ous insti­tu­tion that is nev­er­the­less char­ac­ter­ised by an essen­tial benignity.

Half way through this story, I was becom­ing wor­ried that the whole thing was an infodump. At the end, I knew it was an infodump, but I didn’t mind. Van Pelt had won me over.

That’s not to say the story is without puzz­ling blemishes.

Explorers reached both the south and North Pole. They plunged the ocean depths.

Maybes. But wouldn’t ‘plumbed’ work bet­ter than ‘plunged’?

Another uncom­fort­able metaphor:

Whether [the jan­it­ors] know it or not, their hero is John Kapelos, an actor who played Carl, a jan­itor, in The Breakfast Club.

Can you really have a hero you don’t know?

A spanner-wielding line editor would have tightened the nuts on this story in a few places, but I liked the over­all sense of it. Someone wrote that edu­ca­tion is what endures when know­ledge has been for­got­ten, and it would be easy to see this (half-remembered) quote as the inspir­a­tion for this story. The Hareton remains…even when all else is lost. Because edu­ca­tion, like cul­ture, is a continuity.

Otherwisely

Russian Ark; Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Dark Gardens

The more I think about this Greg Kurzawa piece, the more I enjoy its images. These I will not describe. I will say that the one image—mine, not his—is an ele­phant, and it is stand­ing in the room of his story. Said ele­phant is The Prestige—or Christopher Priest, depend­ing on how you like your images.

Sam is a per­son we know little about. He has just pur­chased a fore­closed house with the inten­tion of gut­ting the place, doing it up, and selling it on. Before any of this can hap­pen, he dis­cov­ers that the house formerly belonged to a stage magi­cian named Kurricke, and many of his illu­sions remain about the house.

This story is unusu­ally enga­ging. Its mys­tery is com­pel­ling and the steps that Sam—and his scuba-diving com­pan­ion, David—take are logical explor­a­tions in its res­ol­u­tion. What sets it apart are the ways in which the solu­tion to the mys­tery are real­ised, and the human­ity with which the non-human ele­ments are handled. I have little doubt that the cor­rect term adject­ive for this story is Lovecraftian (I write ‘little’ because I have never read that fabled hor­ror writer, H P Lovecraft).

The magi­cian had van­ished after liv­ing in a the two-bedroom ranch for sev­en­teen years, leav­ing spoiled milk in the refri­ger­ator, dishes in the sink, and all the tools of his trade in unlocked trunks.

In the base­ment, Sam dis­cov­ers a hatch that opens on black water.

What’s not to like?

Which Reminds Me

The Prestige; The Room; Android; The Lurking Horror

Il Teatro Oscuro

This story by Ken Altabef is a shortie. We open on an old man, sit­ting alone in a theatre.

The old man’s back aches. This is not unusual, des­pite his hav­ing the best seat in the house. Third bal­cony, dir­ectly centre stage, a seat which still clings to some fair por­tion of crushed red-velvet cush­ion where the brass studs haven’t yet chewed through.

But this does not mat­ter. All thought of worldly con­cerns, dis­com­forts or oth­er­wise, fade quickly to obscurity…

What of the old? Do we stand on the shoulders of our past giants, or do we trample them? Altabef’s story takes an interest in nos­tal­gia and obses­sion. The old man char­ac­ter has an interest in opera—itself a niche art form kept alive by a small but ded­ic­ated fanbase—and there is a sense that its lack of mean­ing grows mean­ing as it matures. A simple cab­inet, after all, gains value by vir­tue of its antiquity.

This a sharply judged and affect­ing story where the meta­phors, place and char­ac­ters bring out the best in one another. While, for me, the end­ing did not work well (we observe the rebirth of a char­ac­ter in whom we have little invest­ment as read­ers), the inev­it­able tramp­ling of the giant tuned this story to just the right pitch of melodrama.

Meanwhile

Pan’s Labyrinth; His Dark Materials

Technarion

Sean McMullen’s story is a mys­tery with a tra­di­tional plot, by which I mean the prot­ag­on­ist is good man doing his best in bad cir­cum­stances. Literary qual­it­ies are min­im­ised as the author con­cen­trates on lead­ing us through a fair whack of story mater­ial. Its atmo­sphere is very Conan Doyle. If the story stands on a giant, that giant is Jules Verne.

In the spring of 1875, I was a right and inno­cent young man. Although steam was the found­a­tion of every branch of industry, I had chosen to study elec­tri­city when I had entered the mech­an­ics insti­tute. By chance I had been given a good edu­ca­tion, and this has kept me out of the mills and the mines.

Lewis Blackburn is invited to meet with a mys­ter­i­ous, rich indi­vidual who wishes to har­ness his elec­tron­ics genius. Before long, Lewis is tangled up in a plot to push com­put­ing tech­no­logy for­ward at a start­ling rate.

Interzone will want to appeal to wide demo­graphic, and will include a vari­ety of stor­ies. It’s not likely that all of them will be to my taste. So, of all the stor­ies in this volume, I liked this the least. That’s not to say it doesn’t have good ele­ments. The plot is con­sist­ent in small chunks (less sat­is­fy­ing in lar­ger units) and con­tains some good dialogue.

However, there are uncom­fort­able tonal shifts. For example, fol­low­ing a quite stag­ger­ing rev­el­a­tion, the main char­ac­ter says:

How does one reply when one’s fiancé says that?

That made me laugh, and the author, too, I expect, but the char­ac­ter would not; this jux­ta­pos­i­tion is cheap.

We have char­ac­ter reversals, too, and a fram­ing nar­rat­ive that rolls too many mar­vels into one.

Nearbies

The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb; The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters; I Am Legend

What’s not to like?

Overall, some great short fic­tion in this issue. You’ll like at least one of the stor­ies a lot. And, at £4.99, you can’t argue about that’s not value for money. I’d like to see more use made of the illus­trat­ors. Their work is good, as usual, but repe­ti­tion of the same imagery gives the impres­sion that more money needs to be spent on them.

Writing a Novel Using Markdown: Part One

This story begins with a per­son like me. When I pub­lish ebooks, I want them to turn out exactly as I intend. That means tak­ing the text of the story, sand­wich­ing it with front mat­ter (like copy­right) and more text at the end (like acknowledgments).

Until recently, I wrote my books using the word pro­cessor Apple Pages. I would export this to a Microsoft Word doc­u­ment for my edit­ors and proofread­ers. Then, when the book was ready to be con­ver­ted into an ebook, I would do a lot of the work by hand.

And therein lies the prob­lem. There’s a lot of manual effort involved when you take a Word doc­u­ment and pro­duce some­thing that Amazon or iBooks will accept as an ebook.

In this post I’m going to talk about using plain text files to con­sist­ently and pain­lessly pro­duce ebooks. I won’t assume much knowledge.

Styling Text

There should be a sep­ar­a­tion between style and con­tent. Style is font size, para­graph spa­cing, and all that jazz. The con­tent is the text itself. Word pro­cessors like Pages or Microsoft Word com­bine style and con­tent into a single file. These files are com­plex, con­tain ambi­gu­ities, and are dif­fi­cult to read without a work­ing copy of the pro­gram that pro­duced them.

When you sep­ar­ate style and con­tent, many advant­ages res­ult. The con­tent file doesn’t need to be in a pro­pri­et­ary format. It can be plain text. The con­tent file will be eas­ily read by a com­puter, which means the com­puter can auto­mate cer­tain things for you: cre­ate an ebook, a nice-looking PDF, a PowerPoint present­a­tion, a web page…all from the same con­tent file.

But how do you make the con­tent file?

Use Markdown

Markdown was cre­ated by John Gruber as a way of writ­ing for the web without includ­ing the dis­trac­tion of mark-up tags (more below). It has been exten­ded by sub­sequent programmers.

The best way to describe Markdown is to show you an example. Here is the open­ing of my novella, Red Star Falling:

## Red Star Falling

In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vis­ion of red chrys­an­them­ums fall­ing. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their *Gestalt* was art­ful sadness.

What you’re look­ing at above is a plain text snip­pet. The # char­ac­ter means that the text Red Star Falling should be treated as a head­ing (just like a head­ing in Word). Two ## char­ac­ters means that this is a head­ing level two. Immediately, you can see that this is a fool­proof way of telling a com­puter that the text is head­ing level two; at the same time, it’s easy for a human to read.

After

## Red Star Falling

there is a blank line. This tells the com­puter to treat the next text it encoun­ters as the begin­ning of a new para­graph. Notice that, in this new para­graph, I’ve used a

*

char­ac­ter to enclose the German word Gestalt. This tells the com­puter to emphas­ise the word. In this case, it makes it italic.

OK. So I’ve writ­ten the first para­graph of my glor­i­ous story. What do I do with it?

Well, the Amazon Kindle format is based on HTML, which is the simple tag­ging format that most webpages use. So I want to pro­duce HTML from the Markdown. There are many tools that will help you do this. I’ll talk about some of them later. When I con­vert the above text to HTML I get the following:

<h2>Red Star Falling</h2>

<p>In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vision of red chrysanthemums falling. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their <em>Gestalt</em> was artful sadness.</p>

If you’re not famil­iar with HTML, this will look a bit weird. The import­ant thing to note is that the ori­ginal Markdown format text will reli­ably pro­duce the HTML.

Why this is exciting

How much do I love Markdown? Let me count the ways.

  1. The thing that I, as a writer, look at, is a plain text file writ­ten in Markdown. It doesn’t get much sim­pler. I don’t need to worry about smart quotes and dash sizes–all this is done when cre­at­ing the HTML.

  2. Because it’s a plain text file, I can work on it from a com­puter of vir­tu­ally any type (desktop, laptop, mobile), any age (even ancient PCs can read text files) and any plat­form (plain text files are very portable).

  3. Helper pro­grams can take this Markdown put it into any form I like: PDF, .mobi, epub, and so on. It can take some time to set up these helper pro­grams, but you only have to do it once.

  4. In ten years’ time, the file will be super easy to open. It’s plain text, not a pro­pri­et­ary word-processing format.

My Workflow

Most of my writ­ing takes place on two devices: A MacBook Air and an iPad. My work­flow is there­fore Mac-centric. However, the approach should work on any system.

Here is the point where I real­ise that my own work­flow files are hope­lessly hard-coded to my own sys­tem, and provid­ing you with a work­ing example of Red Star Falling that you can down­load and play with is impossible without edit­ing my files. So, instead of giv­ing you these files, I’ll explain the pro­cess in plain English.

  • My book is a series of plain text files, all of which are in Markdown format. Each file rep­res­ents a sec­tion of the book that I’ve isol­ated for con­veni­ence. (Note that file num­ber six is actu­ally an alias to a file held in a more cent­ral cent­ral loc­a­tion, which is the same across all my books.)

image

  • I then pass the files to an Automator Service. The Automator script does the following:

    • Adds them together to make a single, large Markdown file.
    • Uses the Multimarkdown command-line tool by Fletcher Penney to cre­ate an HTML ver­sion of the book. A sep­ar­ate style sheet (see Useful resources) is used to cre­ate the final ebook style that I like. This tool also smartens quotes, cre­ates proper dash char­ac­ters, etc.
    • Passes the HTML to the ebook-converter command-line tool by the indefatig­able Kovid Goyal, which cre­ates an Amazon-compatible .Mobi, iBooks-friendly .epub, and a PDF for good measure.

I’ve now writ­ten a follow-up to this post that includes a detailed example.

Useful resources

A Markdown cheat­sheet.

My Writer as a Stranger CSS (Cascading Style Sheet). Use this in com­bin­a­tion with a Markdown doc­u­ment to pro­duce a book with the same final format­ting as Red Star Falling.

Markdown tools from Brett Terpstra.