I was really pleased to hear the other day that when the paperback of The Glasgow Coma Scale is released in a few weeks, it’ll be part of WH Smith Travel’s ‘Fresh Talent’ promotion. A dozen titles are chosen to be featured in some or all of the company’s shops in train stations, airports, hospitals, etc; in our post-Net Book Agreement world, where debut authors can find it a struggle to be given shelf space or prominence in bookshops which tend to concentrate, understandably, on pushing more proven talent, this is a really great initiative, and a thrill to be part of. The paperback (pictured at left) will be out in WH Smithses from 27th June, a few days ahead of the official 2nd July publication date. I’m looking forward to seeing what other titles it sits alongside in the ‘Fresh Talent’ bay!
I’m delighted that The Glasgow Coma Scale has been longlisted for the Green Carnation Prize, which recognises the work of LGBT writers. The thirteen books are drawn from all manner of genres and forms, from contemporary to historical, essays to a doorstopper of a novel. There are books in translation, and books from small independent presses as well as publishing’s big-hitters — it’s a properly inclusive list. And here they are:
Of the twelve that aren’t mine, I’ve so far only read Kirsty Logan’s collection of contemporary fairytales The Rental Heart (Salt) and Neel Mukherjee’s majestically assured second novel The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus), and I’m looking forward to delving into reading the other longlistees’ works. Some, like Kerry Hudson’s Thirst (Chatto & Windus) and Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights (The Friday Project), I’ve been meaning to get round to; others, such as Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s Invisible Love (Europa Editions), are completely new to me. That’s properly exciting: prizes like these do bring to wider attention books that might otherwise simply disappear between the cracks (I’m writing this just after Super Thursday, in which the ‘big titles’ aimed at the Christmas market are released en masse: good luck negotiating the vast stacks of these 315 big-name books in your local bookshop). Just as I’m looking forward to discovering new favourites among the list, I hope people will encounter The Glasgow Coma Scale for the first time because of the longlist.
Here’s a funny thing. The Green Carnation prize was founded by books blogger Simon Savidge and author Paul Magrs, who had ruminated on the idea of a prize for gay writers (it expanded in 2012 to include submissions from the whole LGBT community). Paul Magrs’s novel Could it Be Magic (Chatto & Windus, 1997) was one of the books which, back when I was in my late teens and desperate to write a book of my own, showed me that a novel could do anything it bloody well liked: if you wanted to write a book set on a Durham-area housing estate in which one of the characters gives birth to a leopard child from a pouch in his leg, then you could — and it could be brilliant. Indirectly, this led to my decision to apply to the Creative Writing MA course at the University of East Anglia, which was where Magrs was teaching at the time (he taught the undergrad course; then Poet Laureate Andrew Motion coordinated the postgrad version). And that was where I met fellow longlistee (and current Man Booker Prize favourite) Neel Mukherjee, and Paul Murray, and a bunch of other terrific writers. So it feels somewhat as if something has come full circle!
It also makes me inexpressibly happy that Katy Manning was one of the prize’s inaugural judges back in 2010. Those who know the name will understand.
You can learn more about the Green Carnation Prize 2014 via their Twitter, here. As of this year, Foyles has lent its support to the prize and, by happy coincidence, they’re currently offering The Glasgow Coma Scale at a sensational price.
I’m delighted to be participating in a reading on Saturday 4th October in London with two good friends and fine authors, Douglas Cowie and Timothy J. Jarvis. All three of us were at the University of East Anglia at the same time, Tim and I undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, Doug working on his PhD in the same.
Since those heady days among the UEA ziggurats, Douglas Cowie has published a novel, Owen Noone and The Marauder (Canongate) and a diptych of shorter novels under the title Sing For Life, individually entitled Tin Pan Alley and Away, You Rolling River (Black Hill Press) — books about America, music, friendship and loss. I’m privileged to know a little about his hugely exciting new project, on which he’s been working for a number of years now.
Timothy J. Jarvis has long been interested in the weird, the antic, and those odd little corners of fiction and indeed of geogrraphy. His debut, The Wanderer (Perfect Edge), is a wonderfully weird quote-unquote horror novel that’s so much more: a disquisition on the mythology and hidden places of London, a knowing reworking and retelling — wonderfully, done utterly straight — of horror tropes, and a valuable addition to the canon of dystopian literature.
In writing up this post, it’s occurred to me that the odd one out of this trio, not having a PhD to my name. With three weeks to go, I probably shouldn’t embark upon one right now. I’ll be reading from The Glasgow Coma Scale — or, possibly, from something new (I haven’t decided yet).
The event will kick off at 8pm at The Alleycat on Denmark Street — aka Tin Pan Alley, fittingly. There’ll be readings, a chance to buy books, and DJs until late — so do come along (you “hoped for but doubtless chimeric” reader, you). Entry is free!
In an effort to join everything together in an inextricably interlinked web of work-displacement, I’ve signed up to Goodreads (on which posts from this blog are repeated, which in turn appear on my Twitter feed, which also reposts items from the Glasgow Coma Scale Tumblr…).
As well as letting me engage with readers — you can ask me a question on there! — this has already provided me with many happy hours of work-adjacent but not actual work activity by allowing me to add all the books I’ve ever read (give or take one or two shameful ones, like that Lisa Jewell book I bought one evening from Waterstones in Glasgow because it had a nice cover, and because I had been drinking). There’s a competitive streak that makes me want to have the most books on there. 1,360 and counting…
New from me today: a feature for the Scottish Book Trust website discussing ten excellent books on art and artists. There are fictional artists and artworks in novels by Siri Hustvedt, Sarah Hall and Jonathan Gibbs, biographies telling the often bizarre life stories of artists Alfred Wallis and Robert Mapplethorpe, and (as I’ve described it on my Tumblr page already) the single most vital book I read in my research for The Glasgow Coma Scale: the 1987 compilation of David Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon: starkly candid, and indispensable, in my view, for an artist of any variety.
Here’s an interesting piece (yes, on Buzzfeed – don’t worry, it’s not ’Ten cats dressed up as other types of cat’) by Catherine Lacey on writing in the first person, and the journalistic convention of attempting to conflate the author of a novel with its narrator. ‘Is it based on a true story?’ is one of those bizarre rather impertinent questions people ask people who’ve written a piece of fiction — a question whose equivalent you feel they might feel silly asking, say, an architect (‘Are all your designs based on a house you lived in as a child?’) or a teacher (‘Do you only teach children the things you were taught yourself?’). In a way it’s the flipside of the old saw about everyone having a novel in them, the implication being that all a published author has done is write down the kind of thing that has happened to them in life, and how hard can that be?
I also identified with Lacey’s description of the sharper kind of wanderlust she feels – a desire to disappear entirely (a shared dream of writers?) – which makes me wonder if, for her, as for me, the act of vanishing into writing a book satisfies this urge. Few other occupations allow the practitioner the chance to inhabit a life that is, even if the journalist who interviewed Lacey didn’t seem to grasp this, almost entirely unlike her own. I don’t believe that writing a novel should be a way to work directly and overtly through ‘issues’ (though in some cases writing can be useful therapy), but maybe it goes some way to assuaging a desire to throw everything in the air and go off to start a new life on the other side of the planet on a whim. (I feel this urge every so often.)
You work in the dark, so to speak, and until you show your manuscript to other people, or discuss it in any specific terms, to write a book means to hide in plain sight, to spend your time with people no-one else knows, to go to a place where no-one can really find you. My partner Mark was astonished on reading the first draft of The Glasgow Coma Scale: ‘So this is who you’ve been hanging out with all year!’ If you can’t flee to that uninhabited desert island in real life, you can live vicariously through the experiences of someone who is shaped by you, and shapes you too.
Every year since 2012, The Guardian newspaper has run a blog series/competition called the Not the Booker Prize, in parallel to the actual Man Booker prize (the longlist for which was announced last week). Unlike the real Booker, this prize includes a public vote: first, nominations are sought, then from the lengthy longlist thus assembled — 99 books this year — six are picked to progress to the next round, to be read by hapless Sam Jordison, who is in charge of the thing.
The Glasgow Coma Scale has been nominated (hurrah!), and so joins those other 98 titles; and I, therefore, join 98 other authors who will spend the next few days encouraging, cajoling, bullying and offering imaginary bribes to voters to try and get enough votes to proceed to the next round.
What you need to do — I stress the word need; there’s a mug on offer as a prize, you know: The Guardian is asking voters to pick two books from the longlist and write a 100-word review of each. So, merely write a hundred words or so on The Glasgow Coma Scale, plus one other, post them on the Guardian thread with the word ‘vote’ in your post, and all will be well.
I will point out here that GCS is, at a little over 200 pages long, among the shorter books on that list, and since voting closes at midnight on Sunday, there’s ample time to read it before then: how about buying it half-price here?
I will also point out that I drink a lot of tea, and a new mug would be actually quite useful.
Incidentally, the above illustration — which I spent time putting together in Photoshop when I should have been doing actual work — represents the only other NtB-longlisted books I’ve read, all of which are excellent.
Everyone and everything has a Tumblr these days — even books and book publishers. (Though still it mostly seems to be used for porn.) I set up a Tumblr for The Glasgow Coma Scale months back, then thought today I had perhaps better put some STUFF on it. I’m using it as a sort of retrospective sketchbook or moodboard to show some of the influences on the book: art works I looked at and thought about, books that were useful, songs I was listening to, and random gubbins that, dreamlike, had an effect on the way the book went. Have a gander.
I was, as they say, cock-a-hoop — and what does that really mean? — to hear from my excellent friend Jennifer that The Glasgow Coma Scale was reviewed in The Times today (Saturday, 26th July). I wouldn’t dream of subverting their paywall, but the words you need to know are “assured, original, witty”, plus some other very nice things.
On looking the phrase up, I learn that cock-a-hoop may have its origins in some technical term involving turning on a tap and letting alcohol flow. Well… all right then!
It didn’t take me long, when I was thinking about the story that would become The Glasgow Coma Scale, to realise that I faced a fundamental decision: on dialect. The book is set in Glasgow, and many of the characters are Glaswegians; so how was I going to represent their way of talking? Just by sprinkling an ‘aye’ here and a ‘naw’ there? Or should it be something more intensive? Something more… difficult?
I grew up in Glasgow being questioned over, or mocked about, my accent, which sounds distinctly un-Glaswegian and means I often have to issue caveats – ‘I am Scottish, despite the accent.’ (The author Janice Galloway – you may need a dustpan and brush to sweep up that name – once delighted me when she was signing my copy of All Made Up by describing it as ‘an accent that’s travelled’.) So to try and write characters who employed ‘the patter’, as it’s known, was a daunting prospect: it meant trying to replicate in text a form of speech that I was very accustomed to hearing, but not to speaking.
Still: lots of things that are difficult are worthwhile, and I had the safety net of being able to look to that tradition in Scots literature of employing not just individual words that don’t quite have English-language equivalents, but of the variant spellings and the phonetic renderings of everyday speech. Trainspotting and the works of James Kelman are obvious recent comparators, but most Scottish authors will deploy even in ‘standard English’ writing a resonant bit of Scots lingo: a ‘cooried in’ here, a ‘glaikit’ there. The important element was to try to use context to make these words’ meanings comprehensible to a reader unfamiliar with them: quite a nice challenge in itself. And no different from when you encounter ‘flocculent’ in John Banville (or Nabokov) for the first time and have to consult your encyclopaedia or, more likely, Wiktionary.
Then there are those terms for which a phonetic rendering is unimprovable. Any day on Sauchiehall Street you might hear a harassed mum implore her boisterous child, ‘Haud your wheesht!’ How to put that in standard English? ‘Hold your tongue’ seems a bit fierce, ‘Hold your hush’ unnatural, ‘Hold your breath’ downright mean. Nope: the best translation of ‘wheesht’ is ‘wheesht’. And, as a writer, once you’ve committed to that, why not also to that ‘Haud’ – and then to a terse ‘yer’ or ‘yir’ instead of the long vowel sound of ‘your’? Suddenly the language starts speaking for itself.
What was important to me was that the dialogue seemed authentic to the characters. When we first meet Angus, a born-and-bred Glaswegian from a working class background, he’s living out on the streets; to have him speak in BBC-announcer RP English was of course not unthinkable, but it seemed it would be a missed opportunity. You can pay tribute to a place in all kinds of ways; to me, an effort to work with the rhythms and cadences and vocabulary I hear around my home city was one way of praising the place. It’s a city of voracious readers, gleeful language-users, and haverers – that’s people soapboxing and going on a wee bit long – and I wanted my book to reflect that. And while consistency of spelling was important, I was aware that not every Glaswegian speaks the same way, up to and including those of us with a ‘travelled’ accent, so there are variations among characters, from the thicker-spoken to the more anglicised. (There’s even an Aberdonian in there. I hope I got a plausible Aberdeen-ism into his dialogue too.)
There was another reason, too, one which was important to me and, I hope, will affect readers likewise. This was, as I say, a hard decision – why not set the book elsewhere and/or leave out the Weegie dialect? – and part of my motivation was to do something I’d never done before: at least to try it, to work out how (or if) I could achieve it, and to teach myself something. A first novel it may be, but The Glasgow Coma Scale is not the first book I’ve finished, and each time I’m keen to try something I haven’t attempted before.
From the reader’s point of view, in turn, I hope that the little bit more engagement the text asks as you accustom yourself to the dialogue between Angus’s Scots accent and Lynne’s English accent yields some sort of reward. A reader is a translator already; how else do those funny squiggles on the page turn first into signifying words and then to scenes you can visualise in your mind’s eye? Bringing in non-standard English is just one little extra wrinkle to an already pretty impressive act of engagement by the reader. And it never did Irvine Welsh’s popularity any harm.
On another level, it’s one more way in which Angus and Lynne – who are thrown together by circumstance and spend the book attempting, in an Odd Couple type of scenario, to try to understand one another – differ visibly on the page.
At the very least, I hope I can bring the word ‘fankle’ to a slightly wider audience.