Review: Kojiki: The Birth of Japan

Just a quick epistle on this cold winter morning. My review of Kazumi Wilds’ Kojiki: The Birth of Japan is in the Japan Times today and online here.

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These Demented Lands

It’s Halloween again and time for a shameless plug of my gothic horror novel, Silma Hill. Usually I’d link to a piece I wrote in 2015 for the Scottish Book Trust about Scotland’s relationship with the supernatural but they seem to have taken it down. Instead, I’ll repost it below. Silma Hill – and all my other novels – is available in ebook format on all the Amazons and there are still some secondhand paperbacks kicking around with third party sellers if that’s your bag. In the meantime, have a great Halloween and I’ll be back with more news soon.

These Demented Lands

You can tell a lot about a country by how it chooses to scare itself.

For example, American horror is full of external threats, things that jump out at you, things that break into your house, things you must defend your family against. Terror the Second Amendment can deal with.

Japanese horror however rests in the internal projected outwards, psychology made flesh, a creeping, inevitable fear that cannot be fought. The dark patch creeping across the roof is your guilt and it will get you in the end. No messing.

So what about us? Existential threats and walking neurosis don’t bother us much. What really gets under our skin, it seems, is a know-it-all.

Janice Galloway once described Scotland as:

‘a country where the standard childhood training lists “showing off”

as the worst sin of all, a country whose church, family and education

systems used once to ring with the hurled accusation, “Who do you

think you are – someone special?”’

Introduction to Alisdair Gray’s Lanark (Canongate, 2001).

For centuries, and particularly since the Enlightenment, we have taken pride in our cumulative intellect. The list of things we claim to have invented, inspired or discovered is as lengthy as it is debatable. We may be a small nation but our impact has been large thanks, in part, to our brains. But you can take things too far. Our horror is rooted in our fear of hubris, particularly intellectual hubris, our hatred of people raising themselves onto pedestals.

This is most clearly seen in James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the alpha and omega of Scary Scotland. All Robert Wringhim, the titular wrongdoer needs is the assurance that he is of the elect, on the topmost rung of God’s ladder, to start sinning with a fervour that would make most rock stars blush. High and haughty, his fall is all the harder.

But why should that be our biggest fear, our worst sin? I suggest it’s because at our core we are a Northern European community. The supernatural takes on a very different form when you move from the Mediterranean to the Arctic. Our collective unconsciousness didn’t develop amongst olive groves and classical columns, it grew out of the barren landscapes and bitter winters that gave rise to sagas and gods who drink, fight and cavort and that echo lives on in our stories. Once the dead moved with us in the mist and the mountains. Organised monotheism with its rigid hierarchies and endless order was transplanted here from warmer climes. The North has always been more fluid, more chaotic, more impartial. Valhalla – an afterlife with a free bar and no hangover. How did Scotland not invent that?

The fact that our cultural compass points north rather than south can most easily be demonstrated through a figure who again and again turns up to topple pedestals and bring everyone crashing back to an even baseline: The Devil.

Classical images of the Devil have been shaped by two poets. Dante gave us Satan locked in the final circle of Hell, masticating eternally on Judas, Brutus and Cassius. Milton gave us the tragic Lucifer, the fallen angel who refused to serve. His character and appearance mirror the trajectory of the idea through Christian history – an abstract adversary given form, a stick with which to threaten mankind, a warning, a lesson. Impressive, sure, but you never once imagine bumping into Lucifer on the backroads to Blairgowrie.

What of our poets, our writers and artists? What do Robert Burns, James Hogg and James Robertson make of him when they invite him to stroll through their pages?

There’s none of the church’s super-villain about their Devil. He’s almost human, an extrapolated version of ourselves reminiscent of the Norse deities – flawed, mischievous, lonely. He plays the bagpipes in ‘Tam O’Shanter’, the life and soul of the party, the host, MC Clootie. He’s Gil-Martin in … Justified Sinner, possessed of unnatural powers but all too human in his desire to trick, cheat and manipulate. More recently he has supped with Gideon Mack, walking around in battered trainers like David Tennant’s Dr Who’s evil twin brother.

The veil between our world and theirs is thin up here, North of the Wall. There is much traffic between the two. The Deil slips in and out to play his games and he picks his targets well. Our protagonists never triumph. There’s no passing through his realm to purgatory and paradise. Janet is thrawn. Gideon Mack disappears. Robert Wringhim hangs. Drunk Tam only survives because his horse is the brains of the outfit.

He stumbles home to his wife a chastened man, all pretensions terrified out of him. From that day on, we suspect, Tam will be a model husband, shunning both boozy pals and cutty sarks.

The Deil is there to bring us back into line. Be careful, boys and girls, not to get too pompous lest you attract his attention. The Devil walks among us in these demented lands.

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Tokyo Poetry Journal 7

Hi all. While work continues on the Only Gaijin in the Village book I come bearing good news. I recently had a long poem, “Kobe Waterfront” included in Tokyo Poetry Journal vol. 7. It’s the first poem I’ve written in years, and was inspired by a photographic exhibition about the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Copies can be ordered from the website.

Enough procrastination! Back to the manuscript and high pollen count. Ugh, spring.

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Once More Around the Sun

And a happy new year to you all (if you go by the Gregorian calendar, there’s obviously still Chinese New Year, Tet in Vietnam and a bunch of others to come). I’m writing this on the morning of January 2nd, remarkably un-hung over (hung-under? Under-hung? No, that’s something else…) after a day with the in-laws. My new year’s resolution, you ask? Well, to update this site more than once every few months, for a start.014c20f2-c124-4221-aa25-38cc0655bbf1

2018 was good in some ways, bad in others, so basically the same as every other year. Saying that, I have high-hopes for 2019. With regards my writing, if 2018 was the year of progress then 2019 promises to be the year of completion. I have a to do list that’s longer than a Leonard Cohen song (to quote Malcolm Tucker) but it’s all stuff I’m very excited about. It’s been a while since I woke up in the morning desperate to get to my desk and get working, but I’ve been feeling that these last few weeks. Unfortunately it’s all still under wraps.

What can I talk about? Well I wrote in the Japan Times about Japanese-related books I’m looking forward to in 2019. In addition to those I can’t wait for Ely Percy’s debut novel Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz on Knight Errant in the spring, and the news that Fourth Estate have secured the rights to Kirstin Innes’s Scabby Queen should have everyone jumping for joy.

Literary Landscapes is a book of essays about, well, landscape in literature, and I have an essay in the collection about Yukio Mishima, The Sound of the Sea, and Japan. Here’s a lovely piece by Simon Callow about the book in The Guardian which doesn’t mention me at all which, considering my history of reviews in that paper, is probably a blessing.

Since it’s that time of year, here are some lists (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am). All the best for 2019, and I promise to speak to you soon.

My Best Books of 2018 (ones I read in 2018, not ones published in 2018, in no particular order):
John MacLean: Hero of Red Clydeside by Henry Bell (Pluto Press)
A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh (John Murray)
Belka, Why Don’t You Bark by Hideo Furukawa (Trans. Michael Emmerich)(Haikasoru)
Matter by Iain M. Banks (Orbit)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (Canongate)
The Guest by Hwang Sok-yong (Trans. Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West)(Seven Stories)
Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kono (Trans. Lucy North)(New Directions)
Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama (Trans. Louise Heal Kawai)(Riverun)

My Best Albums of 2018 (again, not necessarily released in 2018, just what I listened to the most):
Interiors by Brad
God’s Favorite Customer by Father John Misty
Be The Cowboy by Mitski
REM at the BBC
In An Airplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
Anywhere at All by Small Planet Radio
Zuma by Neil Young
Awake Unto by Rick Redbeard
Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit
Snares Like a Haircut by No Age

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Back in (e)print

Hi Folks, it’s been a while since I had anything much to talk about. As always projects are starting up and falling apart, or progressing slowly. Patience. It’s always all about patience. Well now I finally have some good news: my three novels are available again. With help from Duncan Lockerbie at Lumphanan Press and Tapsalteerie (who published my poetry collection, Fractures), First Time Solo, Silma Hill, and The Waves Burn Bright are available as ebooks from Amazon. They will hopefully be rolled out on other ebook providers/formats before long, so if you aren’t a Kindle user, please wait a little longer. Christmas is just around the corner, so why not get a copy for a loved one, for a secret Santa gift, or even for yourself.

In other news, I attended the Japan Writers Conference in Hokkaido last month and met a lot of wonderful and interesting people involved in writing, publishing and translating in Japan. I did a talk on a possible future of genre fiction, which seemed to down well. Next year the conference will be in Tokyo and I’ll definitely be in attendance. See you there.

I wrote a few more reviews for the Japan Times: Isako Isako by Mia Ayumi MalhotraSpeculative Japan 4, and When I Was a Wolf by Shuji Terayama.

More news as and when.

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Fuminori Nakamura, Hideo Yokoyama

A couple of updates for you. My reviews of Fuminori Nakamura’s Cult X and Hideo Yokoyama’s Seventeen, both from the Japan Times.

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Warning. Drunk & Depressed Writer

I keep threatening updates and they never come. Here’s kind of why.

It’s coming up on four years since my first book came out, and two years since my last book came out. I’m going to sound ungrateful as fuck but four years on, I feel like I’ve got nowhere. My three novels sank without a trace, maybe because they weren’t very good, maybe because my publisher… I’m not getting into that. Everyone at Freight has a story to tell. You, dear reader, decide. Maybe I was cursed from the start, when one of my oldest friends and I ended up head-to-head in the Guardian Not The Booker. Maybe then the writing was on the wall, or at least heavily featured below the line. Word to the wise: never, ever make your friends choose between you and another mutual friend on a public forum unless you are incredibly sure of yourself. It’s entirely possible your self-confidence will never recover. Not really.

Sobering. And I don’t like things that are sobering.

But you go on, don’t you?

Still, it’s hard not to feel discouraged.

Since I handed in The Waves Burn Bright I’ve written another novel. I’ve begun and ended a successful series of stories based on living in rural Japan which I’d hoped to turn into a book. I’ve started three other novels and I’m spending a huge amount of my own money researching a non-fiction book that everyone’s told me is a brilliant idea except anyone who could, you know, help financially to make it a reality.

I didn’t mean for this post to become a whine/rant but it’s clearly going that way. Feel free to bail out now.

The novel. I love it. It’s what I want to be writing. It’s fucked up and weird and makes no sense unless you read it and even then maybe not. But that’s what novels are supposed to do. A novel that fits into the idea of a novel is a failed novel. Every novel should be, you know, novel. It’s literally what the word means. If Will Self is right (and he’s not, ever, just on principle) and the novel is dying, it’s because we’ve accepted the idea of The Novel. The Novel. Mr Dickens makes exceedingly good ones. The English Novel. With its endless chapters and mirroring sub-plots and the way it sprawls just like the empire. The novel is as multi-faceted as the human mind, and until we’ve got that figured out, the mind that is, the novel isn’t dead. It’s us. It’s publishing. We’ve given up. We’ve got Netflix and phones and why do we need novels?

Because novels are the closest thing we have to replicating empathy in art. Because the novel is the closest we’ll get to experiencing life through someone else’s brain until we find a way to hack the brain.

It’s hard not to feel discouraged.

But I still have high hopes for the novel as a form. And I would like to at least die on the north face of those high hopes.

I think all I’ve done so far is make it, breathless, to base camp with all the other tourists.

I don’t intend to fuck around making snow angels.

I’ve written three novels that obey the rules of what novels are supposed to do and while I’m so grateful and humbled to have even one book published, let alone four (including my poetry collection), each of them feels to me like I’m limbering up. I feel like the batter swinging the bat. I’m getting the hang of the weight and heft. I can sense which way the wind is blowing and can feel the catcher trying to put me off. But the pitcher is still playing with his cap and I haven’t swung yet. I feel like I’ve still got three strikes and a few balls ahead of me.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve had my strikes and I’m out. Maybe no more balls for me. Maybe I had my chance. Maybe this is how it ends, as a footnote in someone’s PhD 40 years from now. The also-rans. Mentioned by an undergrad in a case study on publishers who failed. A wannabe ten minutes from base camp dead of hypoxia and hypothermia.

The novel’s been out at a publisher I had hopes for and so far nothing. I’ve started three others. A story about a Japanese punk band. A sequel to First Time Solo. A science fiction novel. I start. I write words. They trail off.

It’s hard not to feel discouraged.

You tell yourself that every word is practice. The first couple of novels I binned, they were practice. Then I stepped up. I’m proud of First Time Solo, Silma Hill and The Waves Burn Bright. Realising that the one after The Waves Burn Bright might just be practice, that hurt. Being told it was no good when I think it’s progress, that hurt. I didn’t see that coming. A sucker punch, right in the gut. I hit three in a row then…

In the analogy, what is a strike and what is a hit? Is publishing a hit? Or is publishing the swing, and the call “strike” comes after?

I lost money on every book I published. Not the publisher’s money, my money. For three books, four times I flew back to Britain to promote them. I paid for the flights from Japan, the hotels, the trains and spending money. I absorbed the loss of income taking time off from my day job. I was paid three figures for my first novel and very, very low four figures for the second and third. Literally as low as you can go and still use four figures without a decimal point. And at the end of it all the liquidators offered to sell me the unsold copies of my novels at 20% off RRP, shipping not included. I couldn’t afford that. They all got pulped, I assume.

It’s hard not to feel discouraged.

Sights on the future. I wanted to turn The Only Gaijin in the Village into a book and thought I could. Shows what I know. My editor rode me longer and harder than ever anyone rode Shergar. It seems, for my sins, I am gullible. I trust people too much. Take them at their word. I was strung along for six months. Lied to my face a couple of times. There’s one born every minute.

It’s hard not to feel discouraged.

It should be hard. Of course it should be hard. That’s where the challenge is. That’s what makes it interesting. But it could just be a little easier.

Just a little. Because in that, is all the difference. (One for all the West Wing fans. Coz Sorkin’s a writer and probably needs a hug too).

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