Friday, October 05, 2012

2nd book done, so what now?

Last night, I finished my second novel, Wannabes, which began over two years as a rather simple idea and turned into something very different and infinitely stranger. It’s bizarre to spend so much of your spare time immersed in this other world only to emerge blinking into the sunlight and realize it’s just a story.

Still, I feel way better about this book than I ever did about Apocalypse Cow, which may well be a sign that it is far worse. It has gone out to some readers to get that first wave of feedback, so I’ll get some impression of whether or not I’ve lost it soon.

I’ll sit on it for a month before having a last look and then zipping it off. My deal was for one book only, so there is no guarantee the publisher will take it. Regardless, I am feeling rather pleased with myself for getting this done with a full-time job, two young kids and a busy social life (thanks to my popular wife).

As for what’s next: I have a pile of short stories half written, so I’m going to spend the next few months getting them finished and out to magazines and what-not. After that, I have to choose between writing a sequel to Apocalypse Cow (currently entitled Cruel Britannia, as per the last chapter) or starting on a novel that uses a sci-fi concept to satirize the wacky world of international humanitarian aid.

If anybody wants to express a preference, feel free!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Storymoja Hay and my aching head

Oh, my head. Four days of delightful company and literary chat at the Storymoja Hay Festival has left my mind buzzing with ideas and concepts. Four days of wine consumption – at the party for the stars, Muthoni Garland’s house (which she graciously opened up to randoms like me), the Saturday mix up, and Sunday reception at the British Council - has left my head aching and my liver begging for mercy, which shall be granted for the rest of this week.

My little blog for the Hay Festival sums up how I felt about this great weekend, but I want to also give a shout out to everyone from Storymoja and Hay, in particular Aleya, Michael, Kitty and Maggie, who made me feel so welcome.

Equally, everybody who made my session such fun has my gratitude - even the guy who basically told me I had written a book nobody would want to read (I don't think he meant it to come out that way).

I’d also like to acknowledge the lovely Giles Foden, who has given me carte blanche to sign books in his name the next time somebody mistakes me for him and asks me to sign his novels. He may regret that.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Storymoja Hay Festival and Telegraph Short Story

I got my first taste of a literary festival as an author last night at the Storymoja Hay Festival launch party, and I'm afraid I must report that taste was largely dominated by beer and wine. This led me to lose my phone, which was happily handed in this morning. Hurray for the honest clean-up crew at the Nairobi national museum!

I also saw this morning that my short story The Red Lion, written for The Telegraph for the festival, has made it up onto their website. Another Hurray!

And for the third hurray, I get to hang out with all kinds of excellent writers and artists over the weekend. There are some real literary heavy-hitters there, including Giles Foden, Dinaw Mengestu and Precious Williams. My novel about zombie cows probably doesn't exactly fit the profile of the rest of the great authors, so I can only hope they don't look at me askance when I tell them exactly what I've written.

Anyway, I'm sure much fun will be had.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Violence and Graphic Imagery in Journalism and Fiction

I have had cause over the last year to think long and hard about the graphic depiction of violence and death, be it through images or words, in journalism and fiction. One reason for this is that my novel, Apocalypse Cow, has attracted comments for its violent scenes, some of which contain detailed descriptions. The other, and more significant, reason is that my journalism career has brought me into contact with many images of death.

When I was in my early 20s, I had a huge argument with a guy who was selling copies of Socialist Worker at Glasgow University over the issue he was waving around. The magazine cover carried the now-famous picture of the severed heads of three Serbs, with the boot of a Bosnian commander balanced atop one as it if were a football. I was outraged, in that way bolshie young students who think they know everything excel at, and accused him of using the image to sell more copies. His counter-argument, shouted at equal volume, ran that only through depicting the full horrors of war would people truly understand what we do to each other in the name or religion, politics and land.

Now, I believe I was wrong to get all aquiver.

Last year, when I was editing a website focusing on Somalia, virtually every day I received intensely graphic pictures of the conflict, usually without any warning in the subject line of the email. When I opened up the message, I would be confronted by huge, full-colour photographs of beheaded bodies, suicide bombers with their coiled and glistening entrails exposed and body parts scattered all around, and corpses displaying ragged entry and exit wounds. Every picture prompted a visceral reaction, and while I published only a select few, I always considered carefully whether I should share this feeling with the reading public.

There are several arguments for and against, and I feel the exploitation angle is the least convincing. Nobody likes to see such images, or at least nobody admits to liking it, and it usually causes a storm when such graphic violence is depicted. Why? After all, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

I believe that without such images, it is far too easy for people to turn their backs on the reality of a conflict, whether their government is involved or not. How many times have you read an article about dozens being killed in a suicide bombing in Mogadishu or civilians being shot in the crossfire in Afghanistan, yet kept on eating your bacon sandwich, perhaps shaking your head a little. It doesn’t touch you. You just don’t feel it.

As someone who has spent the last ten years making his living from the written word, this is going to sound like heresy, but often only a picture can prompt that gut reaction.  I believe the media should show more images from war zones, to serve as a salutary lesson of what people are actually doing to each other, often in our names, outside the safe confines of our apartment walls.

The Kenya Burning exhibition and book, which depicted the full scale of the bloody tribal-tinged violence that swept the country after disputed elections in December 2007, is a perfect example of how images of death and destruction can create a positive effect. While Kenya’s population is just under 40 million, only around 1,500 people died, so most didn’t witness the violence first hand. This exhibition gave them a chance to really feel it, and played a key role in creating the ‘never again’ attitude that is now prevalent among many Kenyans – most of whom didn’t understand the full consequences of their role in stoking the conflict until confronted with these disturbing pictures.

However, there is another side to the story: the narrative that relatives of those who had died would be traumatized by what they see. I understand this argument, and can see why opening a newspaper or website to see the body of a loved one would prompt gut-wrenching anguish. This is why it was a tough one to call when working on the website, and I erred on the side of caution. Also, in an accident or natural disaster, there is little point to showing the pictures. When the Kenyan minister George Saitoti’s helicopter came down recently, Kenyan media ran graphic pictures of burned bodies, but this served no purpose, as those pictures would never stop another mechanical failure.

Much the same argument applies in fiction. My book is violent, something that has freaked out some readers – who have no problem reading about death as long as they aren’t presented with the details. I find this censorious attitude odd. Writers go into exhaustive detail on every other aspect of human existence, and this is not only embraced, but expected. Yet when it comes to death, it only seems acceptable to describe the emotional impact rather than the physical process.

My theory is that people rationalize their distaste for images or graphic descriptions of violence. They will call it exploitative, or gratuitous or plain tasteless. Ultimately, however, it is about our fear of death. We don’t like to be reminded of how fragile we are; how, in the end we are made up of flesh, bone, tissue and blood. It is hard to reconcile our rich inner lives, our concepts of self and soul, with the precarious biology of our bodies, which can be unravelled at any moment. Most of us can’t even bear seeing others in the nude, as evidenced by the repeated arrest of the naked rambler in Scotland, never mind digging deeper into the bodies that are so indistinguishable from one another and thus realizing we are perhaps not quite as individual or special as we thought.

Personally, I find it more distasteful when books and films are full of death, yet it is glossed over, the impact of the most profound thing that can happen to a human diluted by the audience being allowed to look away at the crucial moment. Glamorization of violence can only happen when the reader or viewer is allowed to enjoy the crash-bang-wallop action without being shown the full horror of violence. Death, particularly violent death, is bloody, horrific, disgusting and cruel. I believe it should be portrayed as such, otherwise we are shirking our responsibility to depict human existence as it is and allowing people to revel in the ‘glorious’ aspects of war or combat in any form.

Yes, depictions of graphic violence are disturbing, and so they should be. Aside from reminding us of our mortality, our uncomfortable reactions remind us of the basic human decency that prevents most of us from killing. That, in itself, is surely a worthwhile goal.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Apocalypse Cow, dead children and John Gummer

I must be showing my age – and not just in the grey hairs, slowing legs that lead me to clog a few more people on the football field and inability to remember the location of my phone and keys for more than five seconds.

I’ve noticed quite a few reviewers of Apocalypse Cow were disturbed by one particular scene, in which the young child of a politician is killed live on television during a publicity stunt aimed at keeping consumers eating meat as the zombie virus spreads through Britain’s livestock. While it may seem gratuitous to readers who are not as advanced in years as I am, it is there for a very specific reason, one which stretches back to the height of the Mad Cow crisis in the UK.

In 1990, as Brits got themselves into a tizzy over the likelihood of contracting BSE (in its human form CJD) from eating infected beef, John Selwyn Gummer, at the time Agriculture Minister for the Tory government, staged a press event during which he tried to feed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a burger. Only days before a cat had died of a BSE-like disease, showing that the virus could mutate, and the government had banned humans from eating beef offal.

His intention was to ease public fears over British beef. Instead, he ended up being vilified for his PR stunt, although he continued to defend his actions years later and his daughter did not contract CJD. In retrospect, the chances of her contracting any illness were very slim, and to be fair he did eat the burger himself, but he essentially took a chance with her daughter’s welfare in the hope of gaining political capital. Children have long been tools in the political game, wheeled out regularly to fluff up a politician's family credentials and gain votes, but that was taking it a bit too far. Gummer got away with it. The politician in my book doesn't.

Anyway, this is the problem with satire. If readers don’t actually know of the event you are parodying – and that is obviously a danger if you are drawing on something that happened 22 years ago – then they are going to miss the whole point of the scene and, as appears to be the case with my book, suspect the author is just a sadistic swine who enjoys bumping off children on page.

Of course, The Hunger Games is full of children being slaughtered in various nasty ways, and most people are fine with that because they understand there is some message behind it. Perhaps I should go down the Monty Python route in future, and flash a large ‘SATIRE’ sign across the page with a footnote explaining what I’m doing. Or maybe not.

I have also half-written a blog post on depictions of graphic violence in the media, books and films, as it has been something I have thinking about a lot given both the nature of my book and long history of working in journalism dealing with rather nasty conflicts. I need to chew on it a bit longer, but will post it soon. The basic gist of it is looking at why we don't like to see pictures of dead bodies, and why people are offended by descriptions of death in novels - even though novelists explore and describe everything else in great detail.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Yet another freebie

Another chance to win a copy of the Pratchett Prize-winning Apocalypse Cow, this time a rare uncorrected proof, complete with some typos, lots of unfixed said-bookisms, and a few formatting errors.

Pop on over to The Reading and Life of a Bookworm to enter.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Three copies of Apocalypse Cow up for grabs

Those lovely folks at Transworld have stumped up ten copies of Apocalypse Cow (winner of the Terry Pratchett prize, etc) to give away as freebies. I'll be running a giveaway per month for the next three months on Goodreads. Click below to enter the first:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Apocalypse Cow by Michael   Logan

Apocalypse Cow

by Michael Logan

Giveaway ends June 26, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Friday, June 15, 2012

Zombie cows coming to the US

I'm very happy to announce that St Martin's Press have acquired the US rights to Apocalypse Cow. It should be hitting the shelves in the Spring of 2013. Hurray!

Final diary

The final entry in my Terry Pratchett prize diary for Multi-Story is now up.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Apocalypse Cow - fact or fiction?

For all those who thought I was being a bit far-fetched with a novel about zombie cows, this here journalist, Mike Argento, is turning up startling, incontrovertible evidence that the bovine apocalypse is coming.

Don't say we didn't warn you!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Chatting with Vanessa Gebbie

Yet another quick one to draw your attention to a little chat about Apocalypse Cow and other writing stuff on the blog of Vanessa Gebbie. Vanessa is a prize-winning author whose first novel The Coward's Tale is a rich, emotional story of the repercussions of a mining disaster in a small Welsh village. She was also the judge when a short story of mine won the Fish Publishing 2008 One-Page Fiction prize.

Thanks for hosting me, V!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Published at last

Finally, I am a published author. Feels like I've been waiting forever.

Anyhoo, here's a wee blog post on the Transworld website on how it feels.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Latest Pratchett diary now up

The latest entry in my diary about winning the Pratchett prize, in which I blather on endlessly, is up here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

First review

A big excited yay! is in order for the first review of Apocalypse Cow, which you can read here if you are so inclined.

It's a very good one, which has gone a long way to calm my nerves about how the book will be received when it comes out four weeks today. Until now, most feedback has come from family and friends, and even though they are usually very honest, the blanket positive comments made me suspect they were just being nice. It's good to know the book is now out there, with other reviewers either reading it or about to read it. Knowing that I made somebody laugh has made it all worthwhile.

Also, David Logan (the other winner of the Terry Pratchett first novel award) and I have interviews in the next edition of SFX, which will also help build up a buzz. I don't know if there will also be a review.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reviews are in the post

Over the weekend, uncorrected proofs of the book began plopping through letterboxes to land with a meaty thud on the hallway carpets, soaked with the blood of gutted authors, of journalists and reviewers across the UK.

This means that in the coming weeks I can expect to get an idea of how the critics are going to receive the book. You can perhaps tell from my opening sentence that I am feeling a little nervous. I probably shouldn't be as worried as I am, since hundreds of people read the novel and liked it in the process of winning the Pratchett award, so at least some people are going to have positive things to say.

My wife tells me I am typically Scottish, in that my idea of a happy ending is one in which not quite everybody dies horribly. For example, we have argued down the years about this short story I wrote for Chapman magazine many moons ago. I still maintain it ends happily, while Nats says it is completely miserable.

On the book front, the fact that the title and cover have been well received, in fact building up some excitement, has made me even more concerned. A more optimistic person would be very happy about this, but instead I am fretting that increased expectations = harsher judgements = worse reviews. Perhaps my wife is right, and I am just a miserable git.

I take some solace in this quote from Anne Enright: "Only bad writers think that their work is really good."

Of course, I could actually be a bad writer with a realistic assessment of his own work rather than a good writer being too hard on himself. The problem is that when you have poured hundreds of hours into creating something, it is impossible to objectively judge its worth. Step in the critics and public.

Anyway, my Glaswegian outlook on life probably explains why I am expecting the worst. Nats (who grew up in Cumbernauld and should therefore be even more negative) is the opposite. I guess we'll find out soon enough who has the most realistic view.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

One book, 17 countries

As far as I can tell, the English-language hardcover of Apocalypse Cow will be on sale in the following 17 countries from May 10, either through local booksellers or the respective versions of Amazon.

South Africa
New Zealand
Czech Republic

Not a bad start!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Forcing myself to plan for next book

I have never been a planner, in life or in work. I tend to take things as they come and give in to my ideas and impulses. So far, it has worked out pretty well for me. However, right now I’m frightening the life out of my wife Nats with my flip charts, outlines and moveable post-it pads. The reason for all this uncharacteristic organization is that the novel I’m working on is turning out to be rather complicated.

The plot started out pretty simple, with no fantasy element to it. I had a brainwave, however, which has created a wider overarching theme involving heaven and hell’s battle for humanity’s soul through music. Now it has three main characters all coming together: a minor demon trying to prove himself to the head bummer, a washed-up rock star desperate to hit the big time again and a failed talent show contestant with some strange ideas about what it will take to become famous.

This makes for a better book, but it is far harder to keep track of all the different interwoven threads. So, I’ve had to throw aside my shambolic nature and become a planner. With Apocalypse Cow, the idea just came to me and I ran with it. The plot evolved naturally as I went along, and I never felt I needed anything beyond a basic outline that I modified as I saw fit. I have an outline for the current book, tentatively titled Wannabes, and 45,000 words in the bag. But over the last few weeks I’ve been unable to move forward as I am struggling to figure out exactly what goes where and in which order.

Enter the flip-chart. I now have a large piece of paper, a bunch of scenes on small pieces of paper and a stick of paper glue. I am going to spend the next few days shuffling all the scenes around until it makes sense in my head, then I’m going to stick those babies down and go for it. I’m hoping this will give me a clear run at the first draft, which should take another 2-3 months. After that, I will add meat to the bones and compulsively edit until somebody tells me to stop.

I hope to have this book completely done by the end of the year, other commitments to family, work and Apocalypse Cow permitting. Wish me luck!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Baby number three has arrived - sort of

My third baby arrived yesterday, and I'm very happy I didn't have to deliver this one on the bathroom floor, as happened with our son in December. It's a premature birth of sorts, since the baby in question is my book, which has been delivered in uncorrected proof form. For those who don't know, this is a bound copy of the book for review purposes. Typos and some small changes to the text (taking out a bunch of said-bookisms that slipped through, for example) have yet to be made, but it is so close to the final text to make little difference.

I am aware it is slightly tragic to take a picture of the books in the baby hammock, but this particular baby took a lot longer to create than the last two (hundreds of hours vs 30 magnificent seconds), and so deserves at least as much love. I've been working toward this dream of being a published author for years, so I'm sure you can forgive my excitement.

We aren't there yet. It's rather like climbing a mountain and reaching a plateau near the top only to see another peak ahead. The foreword by Terry Pratchett, dedications, author bio and acknowledgements are all missing from the text, but the end is now in sight, and to actually have something in my hand that looks like a book feels wonderful.

The cover was exactly as I expected, and looks very striking, but I was also pleased with the spine, which looks very funky, and the prominent quote from Sir Terry on the back, saying the book made him 'snort with laughter'. Even if the book bombs, knowing I made the man considered one of Britain's foremost humorists laugh gives me a sense of achievement that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

These uncorrected proofs will be going out to reviewers, so I can expect to start getting a feel for what others think very shortly. Yes, I am nervous, but I remain hopeful it will get a positive response. Fingers, toes and other crossables are all firmly crossed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Things Fall Apart

I’m shamelessly borrowing the title of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel because it so aptly describes the way I’ve been feeling recently. This isn’t about relationships and your role in the community disintegrating. Rather, it’s about how recently I’ve been very aware of how fragile the human world is.

I’ve just finished The Day of the Triffids, in which nature quickly swallows up mankind’s infrastructure following the blinding of much of the human race. This idea is mirrored on a smaller scale in our flat, which is falling apart. We have leaks, problems with the water mains, power cuts, tiles that keep coming up, cupboard doors that keep falling off, phones that won’t be fixed no matter how much I tinker, toys that break, buttons falling off dresses, alarming gaping holes in the groin area of jeans (mine, so don’t get too excited) and countless other little niggles.

I’ve been spending a lot of my time running around after lots of the little things, but I’ve discovered owning a toolkit doesn’t automatically turn you into a handyman. I’m considering experimenting to see how quickly things would fall apart if I stopped my ham-fisted maintenance attempts. I wonder if Nats will accept me sitting very still on the sofa for a week to see if vines start to grow up my legs. Probably not, since she has roped me into doing this Insanity fitness programme, which has also made me understand how frail the body is. Quite frankly, a daily diet of push-ups, suicide jumps and jacks is making me feel older than my 41 years rather than turning back the clock.

Anyway, the point of this waffle is to share some links to pictures of abandoned cities and urban areas, which I came across while researching my current novel.

Weburbanist has stunning pictures of places such as the Kowloon Walled City outside Hong Kong, Oradour Sur-Glane in France and Kolmanskop in Namibia, where sand has filled up derelict buildings. Some of these towns would make fantastic settings for novels, so I’m bookmarking them all.

The same site also has images of derelict water parks, brain research facilities and psychiatric hospitals.

Derelict London has some great shots, including of Old Ford, which I am using as a location in the book I'm writing now. I need to get there for a visit to see if it is still there next to the high-end flats overlooking the River Lea.

Thanks to Gav and Perry for pointing out Shit London and Abandoned Scotland. The abandoned Arrochar Torpedo Testing Station is ideal for a location in the follow-up to Apocalypse Cow that is currently percolating in my mind.

This essay on 'ruin porn' delves into why we find these places so fascinating, and is illustrated with some great examples.

And finally, Abandoned America has more images from Matthew Christopher, who took some of the shots in the article above.

I’ve never placed too much value in objects, instead valuing experiences, and for me these images just reinforce that perception. Everything falls apart in the end.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pratchett diary

Just a quick one.

I'm writing a diary for Multi-Story about my experiences on the way to publication after winning the Terry Pratchett First Novel Prize with Apocalypse Cow. Latest entry is up here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Limitless patience isn't always a good thing

If there was an Olympic discipline for waiting patiently, I am absolutely sure a Kenyan would win it, given the amount of training the average citizen has to go through every day.

I am in the process of trying to procure a birth certificate for our son Kristian, who was born on 13 December. On Tuesday, I went down to the city registry to begin the process, which I now realise will take a very, very long time.

The office itself looks like a paper bomb exploded. It is a tiny room in Nairobi City Hall, where every shelf is stuffed with old books piled high on one another. On every table are bundles of certificates, literally thousands of them, in no order whatsoever. The staff members have what can charitably be described as a leisurely approach, which involves drinking tea and eating chapatis while staring balefully at the scrum of people waving notification slips in an attempt to get their attention.

On the first day, I was sent away because the computers were down. On Wednesday, it took them an hour to establish they couldn’t find the certificate. This initial process involved a guy staring at the computer, typing in the notification number, staring at it again, typing the number, etc, until he wandered off to look for it. After leafing aimlessly through some bundles, he sent me off to Nairobi hospital so I could get the delivery note and help them find out who received the certificate.

An hour later, I return. They discover the guy who received the certificates isn’t there, and his phone is turned off (this is after another hour of waiting, and they only called him because I suggested). Off I go for lunch, with the promise they will look. An hour later I am back, only to find they are on a late lunch. They return 40 minutes late. Another woman then leafs through some papers, clearly unhappy at having to do her job.

She then tells me to come back tomorrow, when the guy should be there, and they will look again. At no point did anybody apologize for the loss, and the assumption was it was my issue to sort it out even though it was their mistake. When I explained they were making me run all over town to fix their mistake, I got a blank stare of the “why is this irritating mzungu annoying me” variety.

Throughout this all, there were at least 50 Kenyans going through similar grief. They all stood about, shaking their heads and telling me how bad it was. But not one of them was prepared to complain to the staff about the terrible system and their bad attitude.

Kenyans tell me all the time how pissed off they are that nothing works, but here’s the thing: the reason it doesn’t work is because you let it not work. If everybody in that office kicked up a stink, at the very least the employees would make an effort, if just for a quiet life. Yet it is the foreigners (including a London Somali lady who was having the same problem as me) that are left to complain. We can easily be dismissed as impatient interlopers who don’t understand Kenya, when all we are are people prepared to vocalize what everybody else is feeling.

So, Kenyans: if you want things to change, complain when it matters, instead of telling mzungus how terrible it is than looking faintly embarrassed when we do your complaining for you. If you guys had a bit less patience, the country would run better, and you wouldn’t build up five years of frustration that then suddenly explodes the way it did after the 2007 elections.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Feeling grateful for modern medicine

It’s easy to take modern medicine for granted. We pop a pill or go under the knife, and just accept this is the way it should be.

I’ve had cause to think about it since Kristian, our four-week-old, was diagnosed with Pyloric Stenosis after three days of vomiting. It’s a condition that stops food passing through to the intestines, so he was becoming increasingly dehydrated and losing weight. Quite simply, without the operation, he would have died.

I am so grateful to the doctors and nurses at Nairobi hospital, although since his insurance hadn’t started yet, it will be my turn to feel ill tomorrow when the bill comes. It got me thinking, though, about how many of my friends and family would be dead if we hadn’t had the medical advances we all now embrace as part of daily life.

Last year, Charlotte, our daughter, contracted pneumonia, and was in hospital for three days getting antibiotics through a drip. Without that, there was a good chance she would have died. Without an inhaler, my wife's asthma may have done for her. I’m also thinking about all the other people I know who’ve had medical complications – the friends who would have died in childbirth, or from malaria, or meningitis, or any other number of common conditions. I’m sure everybody has a big list of people they know who may have died without medical intervention.

Hell, I’m even thinking of other simple advances, such as spectacles. I’m blind as a bat, and back in prehistoric times no doubt I would have been gobbled up by that sabre-toothed tiger I didn’t notice until it was too late.

We are so fortunate we have managed to bypass the physical elements of natural selection through application of our large brains, allowing the weaklings such as myself to thrive. Here’s to the medical profession!