Short, Sharp Interview: Ryan Bracha

The exceptional Ryan Bracha talks about his new novel. And I get namechecked, which is nice and unexpected.

Paul D. Brazill

ryan-bracha-jeebies

PDB: Can you pitch Phoebe Jeebies and The Man Who Annoyed Everybody in 25 words or less?

Borderline sociopath struggles to differentiate between comedy and nastiness as he tries to impress a girl with how he came to irritate people for money.

 PDB: Which music, books, films, songs or television shows do you wish you had written?

The list gets smaller and smaller all the time for this. Music gets worse, films get worse, telly gets worse, the older and less with it I get. Books don’t, books get better. That said, anything by Tom Waits I wish I’d written, really digging Goin Out West and Hell Broke Luce just now. Films, I dunno, I wish I’d written maybe This Year’s Love. I like a great concept done well. TV shows has to be Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker has a remarkably similar outlook on life to me as…

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Have A Brit Grit Christmas!

I’m one of many Brit-Grit writers providing their Christmas faves via Paul Brazill

Paul D. Brazill

martinaI asked a bunch of Brit Grit writers about their favourite Christmas book, film and song, and this is what they said:

Martina Cole:

Well my favourite Christmas book has to be John Updike and Edward Gorey’s ‘The Twelve Terrors of Christmas.’ Film has to be Lon Chaney as The Wolfman. I love old horrors especially at Christmas! And song has to be ‘Fairytale of New York’ as I adore The Pogues and Kirsty! (I remember when they were called Pogue Mahone! Kiss my arse in Gaelic!)

Lesley Welsh:

I’m going to be really tedious and say ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.‘ Still gets to me every time. Music-wise, Jona Lewie and ‘Stop The Cavalry’. Christmas book? That’s a difficult one, I never much liked Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol.’ and don’t really recall others specifically about that time of year as I would probably…

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I’ve got a brand new author website

After learning HTML and CSS (an ongoing and never ending process, I might add), and after a couple of false starts, I have designed and coded my new author website. Based on the Bootstrap framework, the site is fully responsive. You should have a good experience regardless of the device you view it on (although for some reason it doesn’t play nicely with Adblock – so be sure to turn off your blocker for my site (don’t worry I don’t have any sneaky ads)).

Come pay me a visit and maybe get on my subscriber list.

Potted reviews: Russian Roulette: The Konstantin Files by Keith Nixon, High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard

Keith Nixon’s The Fix impressed me a couple of year’s back (and the sequel of sorts I’m Dead Again is just as good). Both featured a six-feet-five Russian tramp called Konstantin whose skillset is considerably more advanced than that of the average homeless citizen. In The Fix and even in I’m Dead Again he’s more of a supporting character. However, in the cracking collection of novellas called Russian Roulette he takes center stage. Along the way Konstantin encounters bumbling criminals, wannabe hardmen, drugs, dominatrixes, prostitution, fake psychics, and other misfortunes, most of which he deals with using a combination of smarts and fast fists. This anthology is packed with top notch entertainment from start to finish, written in short punchy sentences that capture the right mix of description, action and character. These are fast-paced, action-packed, foul-mouthed stories with a fair dose of heart. Highly recommended.

I recently read J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. It came across as well written but somewhat vague and episodic. It was too drawn out and the characters were too opaque for it to be truly compelling. It didn’t fill me with any compulsion to read any other of the Ballard novels on my shelf in the near future. But then the film of High Rise came out and I decided that I should read the novel before watching the film. And I’m glad I did. The book is, in a word, brilliant. Unlike The Drought this one is all just crazy momentum. It starts with a truly wonderful opening line and gets better from there. Whether viewed as an allegory about status and class, a statement on modern society’s inability to function without its technological trappings, or just as a satire about alienation, this is blistering fiction. I loved every second of it.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I try to get through at least one or two of his novels every year, just as a palate cleanser. His work always feels like a homecoming of sorts (Leonard was the first crime novelist I read) and Mr Majestyk was no different. It’s basically just a western dressed up in contemporary clothing, but Leonard’s spare writing makes it seem contemporary and fresh. Melon farmer, and former soldier, Vincent Majestyk wants nothing more than to be left in peace to bring in his melon crop, but various people get in the way of this including a mafia hitman. He gets zero help from the ineffectual local police, who actually want to use Majestyk as bait to lure the hitman, so decides to take the law into his own hands and hunt down the bad guys. Like I stated, just like in a western, a small guy gets pushed around by big interests and pushes back with bloody results, but the pleasure comes from the way the tale is modernised and told. Elmore Leonard couldn’t tell a dull story if he tried: his dialogue is always a pleasure to read, his descriptions hit just the right notes of concise, snappy detail, and the action and momentum is just right. If the romance between Majestyk and Nancy Chavez is a bit pat and easy that’s probably because this was Leonard’s second contemporary crime novel (after the relatively low-key The Big Bounce) and he didn’t really hit his stride until the next novel Fifty-two Pickup. But that’s a minor caveat because this is a cracking read otherwise.

Potted Reviews: The Rapist by Les Edgerton, Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden

It’s been a while since I posted any reviews. I’m still avoiding most social media, but I thought that my recent reading has included some strong books that deserve exposure to a much wider audience (although Philip Kerr doesn’t need help on that front). And I’m also trying to get back into reviewing again. 2015 was patchy on the reviews front – some of my year end list didn’t have full blog reviews.

So without further ado…

The Rapist by Les Edgerton
The story of Truman Pinter, and how he came to be in prison, is told in his own flowery words on the last night of his life. He is on death row for the rape and murder of a barmaid. Well, he happily admits to the rape, but he denies the murder charge, because she was an intellectually inferior specimen in his eyes and made the mistake of annoying him. Pinter is clearly intelligent, but he’s also insane. He is self-aggrandizing, intolerant of others, and highly unsympathetic and unreliable as a narrator. His unreliability is as much of a surprise to him as it is to the reader. He suppresses and compresses information not because he wants to but because he has internalised so much rage. He reads like a more flowery version of the already locquacious Humbert Humbert.

Les Edgerton’s superb The Bitch was one of my favourite reads of 2014 but The Rapist is as far from that tale as it is possible to get. Whereas The Bitch was tight and mean and made short work of its complex noir narrative, this tale’s prose style is flowery (intentionally so) and nasty. It’s different and difficult. The subject matter alone is going to divide readers, but Edgerton’s execution is what elevates something that could have been voyeuristic or downright dull in the wrong hands. It’s not crime fiction or noir, it’s more like The Belly of the Beast as recounted by Nietzsche. The ending is likely to be as divisive as the subject matter and open to all manner of interpretations. It’s a very strong piece of work. Original and brave. And recommended for those with a strong stomach and an open mind.

Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels cannily apply the Raymond Chandler model to Germany just before, during and just after the second world war. Gunther, like Philip Marlowe, is a shop-soiled Sir Galahad – displaying decency in the face of corruption and evil. And like the great LA detective he’s just as quick with a one-liner.

The research and detail of these novels is terrific, weaving Gunther seamlessly into historical events and into the orbits of several major Nazi operators. The stories drip with period detail and atmosphere and they are well plotted and the characters are superb. Kerr knows how to push a narrative along and keep the reader interested. And most of the time the writing strikes an excellent balance between storytelling verve and descriptive excellence. However, occasionally Kerr likes to lavish the page with unnecessary metaphors and similes. Sometimes they are right on the money, but other times they jarred me out of the story. Also, the quality of some of the metaphors were wanting in comparison with Chandler. Otherwise this is a superb, highly recommended collection of crime fiction.

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
Scorch Atlas is an interesting though not always successful collection of apocalyptic tales and vignettes. Butler’s writing often ascends to some wonderful heights, though sometimes it reads like little more than a shopping list of pestilence and destruction. The best stories (Television Milk and The Ruined Child come to mind) knit superb prose and a distinctive vision of hell on earth. They also display a fear of family and people in general. The problem with the apocalypse is that it gets a little repetitive after a while. The stories often segue into each other – drowned worlds, horrific diseases and deformities, nature rebelling against man and beast – and the lack of memorable characters doesn’t help with differentiating things. If Butler had paid as much attention to character as he did to the rhythm of his prose this collection would be an ouright winner. But he didn’t and it isn’t – decent, though with moments of brilliance

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden
I wanted to read this before I made a start on the Netflix series Narcos. Basically, I wanted to know the truth (or as close as anybody can get without being there) of the story before watching a more dramatised version of it.

To be honest, it’s a tale that doesn’t need to be exaggerated or sexed up. The story of Pablo Escobar, and the men (both Colombian and American) who lined up to stop him, is so utterly wild that if an author tried to present it as fiction nobody would believe it. Escobar earned billions (back in the days when this was still a relatively difficult thing to achieve), pretty much owned and modernised the city of Medellin, and organised a reign of terror across Colombia. He tried to run for public office in the early days of his empire. He was responsible for the deaths of police, armed forces, government officials, presidential candidates. He was even considered the mastermind behind an airplane bombing and bombs in public places. Like I said, life is often stranger and wilder than fiction.

Even the attempts to bring him down were the stuff of fiction. Endemic corruption in Colombian society meant that Pablo’s snitches were embedded deeply within government, the military, and the police. He was able to evade capture for years (and later escape from ‘prison’) thanks to high levels of corruption. The few people who couldn’t be corrupted were either targeted by Pablo’s sicarios or slated by a press and public that didn’t know what to believe. Even the American operation was mired with infighting by the small, tightly operated, and brilliant Centra Spike intelligence unit and the bloated and highly expensive CIA operation. Centra Spike won the battle to chase Escobar, but it cost them in the long run.

It’s a story that benefits from Bowden’s impartial and considered approach. He doesn’t sensationalise or sex things up, probably because he knows that the facts speak for themselves, and his storytelling skills are strong. He keeps the prose in the background and never shows off, which throws the astonishing events into sharp relief. This is an excellent bit of non-fiction that reads as compellingly and quickly as some of the finest crime fiction. Highly recommended.

White Noise

* Not so long ago I stopped reading writing advice from other writers. Is that because I’m brilliant at it? Hardly.

* Every day I wish I was a better writer. Every day I look at what I’ve written and see a better way to do it: a more concise sentence; a means to describe an action or person in punchier, less prolix prose; how to establish character in stronger terms and faster. Often, in the middle of the writing process, I look at my outpourings and tell myself I’m a cunt. I come close to jacking it all in. Somehow I don’t (I’m still trying to understand that one). So, if I’m that uncertain why shun all the advice? Doesn’t it help?

* Sometimes. Here and there. Up to a point.

* Beyond that point it becomes white noise, conflicting with other white noise, often cancelling itself out. Another term for white noise is interference.

* One writer tells you to cut down on adverbs, another to excise them completely. One writer tells you to write in short declarative sentences, another says mix and match syntax – long on top of short and vice versa. One writer tells you to write to the market, another states follow your own path. One writer tells you exactly how to write a particular genre, while another adds with utmost sincerity that genre isn’t important. One writer suggests eliminating back story and states action is character while another suggests drip feeding back story to readers. Somebody intones that plotting is key, another states making it up as you go along is better, and yet another author suggests a mix of the two. Is third person or first person the best way of telling a story? These writers think they’re helping you. And some of you might agree. However, it’s just as likely they aren’t helping. They’re hindering.

* Writers are often narcissists. Hell, why do you think we write? To leave a little something behind – however small – that states I was here. We like to entertain with made up stories or change the world with reportage. We sometimes congratulate ourselves for doing both. So when it comes to advice the same rules apply. Writers like to pontificate that their way is the right way, though they dress it up in a little humility. If a writer is offering advice it’s because they want you to do as they do, even though they always preface it with this is just my opinion, so go your own way. They don’t mean that. How do I know this? I’m a narcissist, too. Although I’m lacking in just enough self-belief to know I’m not that good at what I do and my advice is bullshit. You don’t need it. So I don’t offer.

* If I did offer, it would be more white noise. Interference won’t help you write.

* As stated in a previous post, A Funny Thing Happened… has had a protracted and torturous development. Three and a half years of call and response, ebb and flow. I wrote myself into a corner not so long ago, when turning it from novella to novel. I considered abandoning the project, telling myself it was an earlier Stanton project and to concentrate on the Glasgow Grin follow-up.

* Then I came up with my own little piece of genius advice: go to the all-seeing Internet and see what She has to say. She offered writer advice. Lots of it. Conflicting and often unpleasant. Some ‘advisors’ start with the notion that your manuscript is shit right from the off. Prompted by what I learned, I noticed mistakes in the manuscript that weren’t actually there – they were in my head, not on the page. I started applying advice that I had no business following – fucking things up as a result. After a few days, I didn’t just want to abandon my novel I wanted to abandon myself under the wheels of the Greenwich to London Bridge train. I told you my advice is bullshit!

* Then I revisited these blogs and websites and saw contradictions everywhere – often in the same blogs. Writer states an opinion with clarity one week then contradicts their own fucking advice a few weeks later. Then I remembered something an ex-boss once said:

Opinions are like arseholes. Everybody’s got one. And like arseholes, most of what comes out is shit.

I loved that guy…

* After that I felt much better. I discarded the advice and got on with the task of revising, pruning and expanding following my own instincts. I wrote my way out of the corner I was in, solved some other structural problems, and I did it all on my own. Now I know what I must do to make my writing better. And not heeding a stranger’s advice is a good fucking start.

* Basically, what works for them didn’t work for me. In fact, they made things worse.  Heartache and fucking misery.

* I trimmed a truckload of writers from my Twitter feed, particularly the persistent spammers and those offering unwanted literary ‘advice’. Fuck ’em.

* There is good advice out there. Often writing advice that concerns other aspects of the business; and this is a business, even if your intentions for writing aren’t motivated by financial results. (And if you’re writing purely for money you’re probably in trouble anyway, because not many writers hit the BIG payout.) This by J. David Osborne is something I’ve seen over the last few days that I rather like, and David Gaughran has a wealth of advice about the mechanics of self-publishing on his blog, which is all good, but take most writers’ advice with a pinch of salt. Just because some writer or editor doesn’t want to read another manuscript ever again with lots adverbs or troubling changes of tense – so what? That is on them, not you. If you like adverbs – use ’em. If you have trouble with tenses – so what? Do what you want. Those writers and editors won’t ever see your manuscript, anyway. Chances are they wouldn’t be interested in it even if it was genius.

* At the end of the day the only thing that matters is that you’re happy with what you’re doing. And that’s it, really.

* Rant over.

Some more random musings on the self-published and indie scene

* Music and film have both had Indie scenes without the sky falling in or society falling apart, and both have ultimately changed their artforms for the better. Punk ploughed into the dormant disco scene and a prog-rock and metal scene that had grown smug and almost unbearably macho. People with just enough music knowledge to form a few chords and chord progressions kicked the music scene into submission. Magazines and sub-cultures sprang up around the music of the late-Seventies. Then it happened again in the late-Eighties and early-Nineties. Factory Records, Madchester, Rave culture (and in the US – Rap and Grunge) all came from independent sensibilities. Yes, they had their opponents (especially Rap, because it gave black culture a mass-market vocalising of anger that it didn’t previously have), but time and cultural upheaval have shown these musical and cultural movements to be hugely valid artistically. Spotify and other streaming services have pretty much democratised music making in the modern age. Anybody with a modicum of musical knowledge and a laptop or iPad can produce chart-topping work (streaming charts, at least), particularly with some clever social media networking and marketing.

* Then there is cinema. Film-makers have written, produced and directed films themselves for years without studios saying: “Who the fuck are these people? And how dare they step on our toes.” Well, maybe they did, but they had the decency not to voice it out loud. Stephen Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, John Cassavetes, Kevin Smith, to name but a few, have all come from independent backgrounds. Hell, Scorsese and Brian De Palma worked for Roger Corman (who for a long time was pretty much the King of the Indies). And with high-speed broadband VOD has made it much easier for fledgling film-makers to get their work out there.

* Okay, so what the fuck has that got to do with self-publishers? I hear you ask (in my mind at least). Well, since you’re throwing the question out there, I’ll bite…

* Self-publishers and Indie Publishers work within the same spirit of upheaval as the indies working in film and music, but there’s a complete lack of respect from the publishers, agents and the mainstream media. How many newspapers review Indie or self-pubbed work? How many agents or publishers take any notice of Indie or self-pubbed writers until they have shifted enough units on Amazon or Barnes & Noble? How much mockery do self-published authors get from those in publishing and the mainstream media? There’s this notion that what self-published authors put out is simply the infamous ‘slush pile’ – basically, all the shite that publishing houses deem unsuitable for the general public. Some of the work is rubbish, but there are plenty of novels and novellas that aren’t slush but are rejected anyway.

* Novellas tend to be rejected unread, especially if they are from unknown writers, because the length doesn’t suit a publisher’s bottom line. Also, anything that can’t be easily pigeonholed tends to be rejected, because publishing is a business and marketing people are essentially lazy. Marketeers like dealing with demographics and boiling down humanity into groups. They prefer not to think about the folks that fall between the cracks, because it involves hard work on their part and, as stated above, they don’t like hard work, but they really should: it’s one of the reasons why Big Publishing seems to be behind the trend in the eBook age.

* Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity was self-published, Andy Weir’s The Martian was self-published, Hugh Howey’s mega-selling Wool trilogy is self-published. EL James’ 50 Shades books are Indie, but they started as a self-published experiment with transposing Twilight’s Bella and Edward into erotic fiction. Big Publishing wouldn’t have touched her with a fucking bargepole. And yes, based on what I’ve read, her work isn’t very good, but on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis it’s not much worse than Dan Brown who is touted by Big Publishing. Rachel Abbott’s huge sales are from self-publishing – big enough that she doesn’t need to sign her career away to Big Publishing. These writers are just a few of the many self-publishing success stories. There are plenty of others out there who write excellent work on a regular basis that doesn’t sell in these kinds of numbers but have enough of a following to get by financially or to at least supplement their regular incomes. They don’t get many/any column inches in the regular press. This is a real shame because a lot of superb work is being missed.

* The Indie and self-published scene is awash with fine writers (and some brilliant ones, too), but the publishing world feels their work is too dark or too raw for mainstream publication. That’s not the fault of the writers – because that’s where their muse takes them – that one is on the publishing houses. Again, marketing. The publishing world is about money, not art, and don’t let anybody ever tell you otherwise. They’re not protecting you from terrible fiction, they’re protecting their profit margins. Bottom line, baby! If they truly want to protect readers from dreadful meaningless books then why are they releasing Zoella’s or Katie Price’s ghostwritten novels? Why do they shovel poor quality celebrity memoirs down reader’s throats? Why did they publish Morrissey’s turd List of the Lost? Hell, why did they publish his memoir as a Penguin Classic? Money, that’s why. The next time one of these publishers or agents trots out the old ‘We’re gatekeepers protecting readers from badly written books’ trope then please feel free to call them out as the cunts they are.

* I’ll take this one step further: I’ve read some seriously good fiction this year, with quite a few candidates for my top ten/top five year-end list. Some of the candidates are Ryan Bracha’s Ben Turner is a Dead Man, J David Osborne’s Black Gum, Tiffany Scandal’s Jigsaw Youth, Paul Brazill’s Guns of Brixton, Ray Banks’ awesome Angels of the North, Les Edgerton’s The Rapist. They are all Indie published or, in Ryan’s case, self-published. Yes, I’ve also got some traditionally published authors vying for a place on that list; but the fact that these authors can mix it up with the likes of Caryl Ferey, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Don Winslow and James Crumley in my list is a testament to just how strong the Indie scene is. Good writing is good writing regardless of how it is produced and what genre it occupies. Authors of psycho-noir, neo-noir, transgressive/bizarro and gritty crime fiction in all their weird glory are producing works of astonishing imagination, ferocity and quality. Authors like those named above and the likes of Jon Bassoff, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Jedidiah Ayres, Anthony Neil Smith, Ian Ayris, Keith Nixon, Gerard Brennan, can all stand tall against Big Publishing and its authors.

* Another thing I’ve noticed in the press recently is the mainstream media crowing about the fall in folks reading ebooks and paperback sales rising. And stories about Waterstones removing Kindles from their stores because of poor sales. However, in typical mainstream media style this is only part of the story. They seem to ignore the fact that e-book pricing of many Big Publishing novels are so high that readers find it easier and more convenient to simply buy the hardback or paperback. The Media ignore Indie e-book originals and self-publishing because they don’t fit the narrative they are trying to sell. And the Waterstones story also makes little sense under scrutiny. When I go to Waterstones it isn’t with the intention of buying a fucking Kindle; I go for paperbacks. Why would anybody go to Waterstones for a Kindle? You buy it from Amazon, usually at a discount, and then browse for books online. Waterstones’ decision, and subsequent failure, to sell Kindles says much more about them than it does about the Kindle.

* I love my Kindle, I use my Kindle regularly, it gives me access to fiction that wouldn’t otherwise be easily available. But when I don’t have access to my Kindle I use my smartphone. Plenty of people who don’t have a Kindle read on their phones or on high pixel-density tablet screens. That probably also contributes to poor Kindle sales anywhere other than Amazon. Just a thought.