Harlan Ellison on the idiots who write for free, and the idiots who ask them to do it.
If I had to choose one book that had the greatest influence upon me during my formative years, it would be Harlan’s short story collection, Deathbird Stories – and when I say influence, I don’t just mean writing, but philosophically and politically too.
At Fantasycon 2010 this past weekend, I moderated a panel discussing the tightrope authors have to walk between writing what they want and maintaining a commercial career in the current tough publishing environment. For anyone aspiring to be an author, it’s essential listening:
(The sound quality may not be great in parts due to microphone malfunction, but it does improve if you persevere. Many thanks to Adele at Un:Bound for getting it all down.)
The panel guests are Saran Pinborough, Mark Morris, Conrad Williams and Tim Lebbon, all horror authors now working in other areas. We touched on why horror is commercially dead as a genre (as opposed to individual novels) and the difficult issues facing writers of SF and fantasy in an industry going through a period of rapid change.
It’s worth another blogpost on the challenges facing all the speculative genres in the coming years, I think. Whatever you’re used to on the genre front, the landscape is going to look very different.
You don’t want to seem like a nutter when you’re on public radio. So when the host asks me – as they always do – where do you get your ideas from, I steer clear of the truthful answer: “psychic connections through the aether” or “hypnagogic messages dictated by our mysterious overlords“. I usually mutter something about stumbling across an interesting fact. Always go for the boring option. It keeps you out of the coats with no arms.
But we can speak honestly here. We all know about the mysterious connections in life. The stuff that goes on behind all those scientific processes. The weird, inexplicable occurrences lurking in the corners of day-to-day existence. The gods and imps and fairies and demons that we like to call other things because, you know, that whole coats with no arms thing…
When I say “the universe speaks to me”, I mean it speaks to all writers, all musicians, all artists. We each tend to put a different face on it, but it’s the same voice. So where do my gods and fairies and demons lurk?
In pubs with stone and timber and glowering locals and beer with strange names. In deep rural life which city folk think is backward, but is wild and dangerous and so removed it might as well be another planet. In bands that you might stumble across in the back rooms of pubs and never hear from again. In stone circles, crumbling ruins, lonely pools, old houses. Across those city liminal zones – industrial estates under sodium at 3am, empty, broken-windowed factories and wasteground with rainbow-streaked puddles. In black-faced, mirror-glassed morris men and biker gangs. In snatches of music heard after midnight. In moots and meets and markets held under moonlight. These are the places where stories are born. These are the locations where my writing gods live.
And for a specific example, here’s one of the inspirations for Age of Misrule…
The Dancing Did remain one of my favourite bands, a quarter of a century after they split up. Characterised as “neo rustic pagan bop” or “a cross between The Clash and Steeleye Span”, you can find out more about them here.
Their album, And Did Those Feet, is little-known but essential, particularly if you like fantasy or any of those things I listed above. The lyrics are clever, witty and poetic and deal with ancient things encroaching on the modern world – listen to ‘The Wolves of Worcestershire‘ or ‘Charnel Boy‘. A remixed version with a booklet and additional tracks is available from Cherry Red.
The Dancing Did’s thematic equivalent today may well be Cornish collective Kemper Norton though the music is very, very different. I came across them through the regular ravings of Warren Ellis, another fan. More inspiration. I bet they never imagined they’d be dragging a story about Elizabethan spies and Faerie into the light…
In the UK, two million people are now employed in creative jobs. Those people account for 7.3 % of the British economy – around Â£60 billion – with a growth rate over the last ten years of twice that of the economy in general. Annual exports of the UK’s cultural goods racks up to Â£11.6 billion.
If you’re currently thinking of a creative career, don’t be put off. When I was at school, our careers advisor basically had two options for the kids: accountancy for the dangerous intellectuals, and down the pit for those with talents in other areas. He told me the chances of becoming a journalist were ‘next to nothing’ and I had ‘no hope’ of becoming a writer: people from a working background couldn’t do that.
“It’s mad. It’s a horrible job. It doesn’t pay well. It’s lonely. It’s depression-inducing. It’s frustrating. There’s no fun to be had. But everyone has a drive to be a writer. And everyone thinks they can do it.
“Whereas to be one is some sort of mental derangement. They’re all bonkers. When my writers say they could earn more money at the till at Sainsbury’s, I say, well go and do it. There’s no point writing unless you feel that you have to do it. You have to really want to do it and to be prepared to suffer to do it. Or you really might as well go and work on the till at Sainsbury.”
Anyone disconcerted by what has come to be known as my “brawling, boozing and shagging post” below (all in the dim and distant past, obviously, now that I am confined to a single room writing like those monks in The Name of the Rose…), should take a look here. Clearly, in the writing world I am something of a saint.
Remember: all writers are monsters. Do NOT invite them into your house.