What inspires you?

A tired enough question at face value, but an important one to ask yourself if you’re an artist of any kind. What is it that gets your fire burning? What do you surround yourself with? What motivates you, educates you, informs your attitude to life? Some inspirations stick, others come and go. So what’s inside you right now?

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Favourite books, authors, artists, works:

Ken Ward: I’ve just finished Perfidia by James Ellroy. In nearly 700 pages not a line, not a word is delivered without juice. Reading his novels are like watching the fight scenes from the Adam West Batman series – Zlonk, Kapow, Bif.

Carmel Purcell: Currently, I am reading What Westerners Have for Breakfast by John McBeath. It captures the experience of being in Goa (in India) perfectly. The last book I read was Tea with the Taliban by Ian Robinson. It was brilliant. I love reading books about the unique experiences people have had in challenging places.

Ashlee Poeppmann: I love reading Fiction, especially Science Fiction and Magic Realism. Currently reading Volume Four of Philip K Dick’s collected Short Stories. But how can you ever choose just one favourite book? I’ve been staring at my bookcase to find an answer. But each book has a different feeling and memory inside it for me. Harry Potter will always have a space in my heart. It was the first novel I read, and I grew up with the characters. I remember saving my small amount of pocket money each year for the next book. I was recommended Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel in High School by my English Teacher. It now has a special place in my heart. On my first day at University, I was recommended The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Carter took another slice of my heart.

Sean Macgilliduddy: Currently reading Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By and before that Anna Funder’s The Girl With the Dogs. Recent exhibition I wish I’d seen but didn’t – Banksy’s Dismaland in the UK.

Elise Janes: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien still fascinates me: lyrical, strange, brutally intelligent, and funny. Not quite sure how he got it all so right. Author/journalist Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats, among other things). I heard him speak recently and he’s a rare thing, an honest, humorous thinker not afraid to show us up for what we are. (Plus his name rhymes with Ron Swanson). The compositional advice of Stephen King, Strunk & White, Van Gogh, and Robert McKee. And always, Martin Scorsese. Storyteller, genius, auteur, an original in every sense of the word

Conan Elphicke: Well, I’m a middle-aged man so my current books tend to be about all things military – anything by Max Hastings or Antony Beevor. Which is shockingly embarrassing. I might as well wear slippers and a cardigan, smoke a pipe and grow dahlias. My all-time favourite books include Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Also the better work of Douglas Adams and Clive James. That doesn’t sound very high-brow so I better throw in Joyce, Goethe, Rimbaud and Dostoevsky, though I’ve never read a single work of theirs and probably never will.

Jane Abbott: It’s safe to say I have no new favourite books. No sooner do I finish one and think, ‘Wow, that’s going to the top of the list,’ than another takes its place. (Although I have to say, it’s hard to beat McCarthy’s The Road.) Like most people, I do have some old favourites, which I read as a child and still re-read every now and then, as a kind of reminder: Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Tolkien (of course), Stephen King’s The Stand, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. These preferences are nostalgic as much as they are admiring.

 

Current inspirations:

Ken: Kyle Chandler’s portrayal of Coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights. His sense of integrity, hard work and personal responsibility make me confront head on, and without aversion, who I am and how I want to be.

Carmel: I am inspired most by people my age who carry themselves professionally and have done very well for themselves so early in life. It inspires me to work hard at the things I love.

Ashlee: I wouldn’t consider myself a poet, but I love reading poetry. Some of my favourite poets are unpublished – I usually find them online. One blog that’s inspiring me this week is ‘mythpoetrynet.tumblr.com’, which is dedicated to poetry inspired by mythologies.

Sean: Spring.

Elise: The visual art of Arnold Böcklin. An Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco. Anything written by Tennyson. And the sea, as ever.

Conan: My wife and kids.

Jane: Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, not least for their endurance. Also Charlotte Wood, Elena Ferrante, Robyn Cadwallader. I think it’s interesting that they are all women.

 

Quote or idea to live by:

Ken: When you speak from the heart, you speak to the heart.

Carmel: Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.

Ashlee: What is important in life is life, and not the result of life. – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Elise: Stuff your eyes with wonder. – Ray Bradbury

Conan: Mindfulness and resilience.

Jane: The biggest challenge we face is shifting human consciousness, not saving the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving, we do. – Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez

 

Five Fathers: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of fictional dads that doesn’t lead with Atticus Finch, so here he gets a category all of his own. This guy had it all. A lawyer raising two kids, teaching them to be real humans (the audacious character of Scout alone is testament to his fathering abilities) and defending the indefensible from the vilest aspects of human nature, all the while dispensing ageless advice to his children on the front porch of their Alabama home.

In tribute to Father’s Day (and the reality that some will find it a mixed affair), here are a few of the best, the worst and the strangest dads in literature.

 

The Good

  1. Jean Valjean

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

“Because things are not agreeable,” said Jean Valjean, “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”

At the bequest of a dying Fantine he rescued Cosette from the despicable Thernadiers and despite being a fugitive, remained a steadfast adoptive father and all-round good guy until his death, never once losing faith despite all he endured. That takes some guts.

 

  1. Mr Bennet

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters.”

Some deride him for his sarcasm and his ambivalence toward his wife, but considering what he had to work with these are shown to be quite endearing qualities. It is his relationship with Elizabeth, the knowing-ness that passes between them, which makes him one of the best fathers in literature.

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  1. The Man/The Father

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

Leads his son through a wilderness of post-apocalyptic destruction and teaches him indispensable survival skills, navigating the ambiguous morality that arises from such desperation. His tenacity alone is enough to garner him father-of-the-year.

 

  1. Arthur Weasley

The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”

His light-hearted perspective on life and unflinching defense of his children and the marginalised Muggles makes him almost a lovably clownish Atticus Finch. And without exception his seven children are among the greatest humans (?) on the planet.

 

  1. Thomas Schell

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

“Honey! I got to go! Other people need to use the phone! I’m gonna be fine, you’re gonna be fine! You listen to me! You made my life better and I want you to know that absolutely love you. I’m going to call you back in a few minutes.”

Proof that even in absence a father can be fundamentally influential in his child’s life. Oskar goes in search of a perceived secret message from his father who was killed in 9/11, and finds himself again.

 

The Bad

  1. Pap Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say—can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t?”

Drunk, abusive and sadistic, he is everything a father shouldn’t be. The only thing we are grateful for is that he produced such a son as Huck and spawned one of the most famously epic tales of childhood adventure known to literature. We are not sorry to learn of his death at the end of the book.

Lolita with Jeremy Irons

  1. Humbert Humbert

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.”

Marries Charlotte Haze to get close to her daughter, Lolita, which makes him her stepfather and legal guardian when Charlotte dies, leaving her at his mercy. Enough said.

 

  1. Michael Henchard

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

“MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.”

An alcoholic who auctions off his wife and child, never bothering to find them until they return eighteen years later while he is in the middle of courting another woman whom he has already disgraced. Lovely.

 

  1. Mr Wormwood

Matilda, Roald Dahl

“A book?! What d’you wanna flaming book for? …we’ve got a lovely telly with a 12-inch screen and now ya wanna book!”

This quote alone places Mr Wormwood into the lowest percentile of humans. A used-car salesman who deceives his customers, alienates his genius daughter and terrorizes her lovely teacher Miss Honey, he is the definition of terrible-dadness.

 

  1. Archibald Craven

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“My mother died when I was born and it makes him wretched to look at me. He thinks I don’t know, but I’ve heard people talking. He almost hates me.”

Yes, we feel sorry for him because his wife died but, no, that does not give him any right to abandon his sick son in a dingy room, especially when all his son needs is a bit of love and natural beauty in order to make a miraculous recovery.

 

The Ugly

  1. King Lear

King Lear, Shakespeare

“…he that makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved, as thou my sometime daughter.”

Definitely not the only terrible father in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but certainly one of the most memorable. He makes the ugly list because he tests his three daughters to see who loves him most in order to decide who should inherit his estate, all the while completely blind to their true natures. He deserves to succumb to madness, and does so with spectacular pomp.

 

  1. Don Vito Corleone

The Godfather, Mario Puzo

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

You could argue that as a father figure, the Don is actually a great family man. Everything he did was for his ‘family’ after all, including making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Yet his actions lead to the death of two of his sons and the corruption of another. So, yeah, ugly.

 

  1. Jack Torrance

The Shining, Stephen King

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Another alcoholic dad, Jack adds to the mix by trying to kill his family with an axe. You could argue it’s not all his fault. But that doesn’t make him a better dad.

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  1. Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“Linton can play the little tyrant well. He’ll undertake to torture any number of cats, if their teeth be drawn and their claws pared.”

Thus is Heathcliff’s view of his son, another sickly boy confined to a dingy house and his father’s intense disregard. Though it’s hard to really stay angry at Heathcliff because he is so damn brooding and so passionately in love with dead Cathy.

 

  1. Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

“We weren’t ourselves when we fell in love, and when we became ourselves – surprise! – we were poison. We complete each other in the nastiest, ugliest possible way.”

Though he stays with the crazy wife because of his unborn child, we can all see the direction Nick Dunne is taking by the close of this book, foreshadowed by the misogynistic outbursts of his aging father. You could say it’s all her fault, but then again, is it?

 

Elise Janes

 

Spec what now?

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Over the past few months, three friends I consider to be prolific readers have asked me, ‘Speculative fiction? What’s that?’ And I have to confess that with every asking my response has mutated by degrees from faint incredulity to scathing exasperation, made worse when they respond with a haughty sniff and a muttered, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ following it with the more dismissive, ‘But it’s not real literature, is it?’ and ‘Yeah, I don’t read that stuff.’ Because, yes, often it is and yes, they probably do. And while sci-fi is speculative, speculative fiction is not restricted to works of sci-fi.

The publishing industry is just that: an industry. A business that classifies and categorises and shelves its products like a pharmacy does its face creams. It’s all about marketing, hailing one book as literary fiction to appeal to the more (often self-professed) discerning reader, branding another as fantasy for lovers of genre. But why can’t a novel be both? And why do sci-fi and fantasy and horror engender disparagement from readers of mainstream ‘realist’ literature? Particularly when so many of those readers will have already read and admired and recommended books that fall into such genres (The Road and 1984, anyone?) Just as the shoehorning of books featuring young, school-aged protagonists into the YA category doesn’t deter adult readers, nor should labelling a particular book as sci-fi put off the more literary minded.

Beneath its wide awning, speculative fiction houses sci-fi, fantasy (high, urban, contemporary and soft), apocalyptic (pre- and post-), utopia, dystopia, cyber-punk, solar-punk, horror and paranormal. Supposing the impossible, it proposes the probable and, when both writing and vision are accomplished, it can open readers’ minds to some very disturbing questions. But it’s not always done well. A rash of vampiric and uber-lupine romances sparked by Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series has caused many agents and publishers to retrieve the welcome mats and nail crosses on their doors. Zombie apocalypse stories, too, are becoming dead in the water. Yet writers still persist, and Amazon et al are flooded with highly questionable speculative fiction, much of it self-published.

But when it is done well — when the probable becomes utterly believable and the horror settles uncomfortably and won’t be shifted; when a reader is transported from reality and their only regret is that they don’t have a one-way ticket; when the novel transcends genre and crosses over into the hallowed halls of literary fiction — the work can be extraordinary. Such novels don’t (usually) feature fantastical undead creatures; instead they delve deeper to reveal the monsters within us. They place ordinary people in re-imagined worlds and subject them to terrible trials, always posing the question, ‘what would you do?’

Historically, speculative fiction has provided the building blocks of civilisation. A grandiose claim, you say? Not so. What are ancient myths, legends and religious teachings, if not speculative? What is our enduring fascination with heroes and anti-heroes (both ordinary and super) if not speculative? What is mankind’s obsession with — and fear of — death, if not speculative? And the emergence of science through the ages has done little to dispel our interest. If anything it just prompts further speculation. No sooner do we break through one scientific barrier, than authors are imagining another.

Raymond Coulombe of Quantum Muse answered the question very simply: The classic answer is that [speculative fiction] is the fiction of what-if? Whether fantasy or sci-fi or any other speculative genre, the list of authors whose what-if fiction has propelled them to fame is long and illustrious: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, JK Rowling, Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, HP Lovecraft, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick, Douglas Adams, Stephen Donaldson … the list goes on. Even I-wouldn’t-touch-speculative-fiction-with-a-bargepole fans of literary classics will have heard of these authors, and many will have read them.

ursula-le-guinAt last week’s US National Book Awards, the great Ursula Le Guin, (whose work includes both sci-fi and fantasy and who is probably best known for A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness) was honoured with the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Instead of humbly accepting her award (as perhaps many were hoping), the 85 year old author began her speech thus:

“Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”

Speculative fiction might not be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it as inferior smacks of arrogant ignorance. Perhaps more than any other genre, it embodies all that is human, exposes our flaws and lauds our triumphs. It holds out for a better world, for redemption of the human spirit, and for justice and freedom.

So if you’ve never read anything speculative, maybe it’s time you did.

Jane Abbott

This article was first published in November 2014 on Jane’s website, Big Bad Words.

What’s at stake?

lord_of_the_rings_book_cover_by_mrstingyjr-d5vwgctFrodo has to destroy the one ring. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road lives on only to keep his son alive. For Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose, it’s the importance of solving the series of murders that have engulfed the monastery.

Struggle is the core of every story. Struggle and conflict. Conflict with the way the world is and the way we want to world to be.

In an oft repeated quote from Gandhi, ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’

the-name-of-the-roseWelcome to the world of our protagonist. Whether they want to or not, our main character is thrust into a situation that demands their every effort to resolve.

Our protagonists are often unwilling, unwitting and unprepared. They make mistakes. They are flawed people after all, mirroring a flaw or two that maybe we recognise in ourselves or others we know. They will frustrate us, even disappoint at times but as long as they stay the course they will never let us down.

How well defined is your protagonist’s struggle? Are the stakes high enough to fuel your story through to the end?

9780307387899_p0_v3_s260x420Whether it be life or death, end-of-the-world or just two people repairing a damaged relationship, have you taken the time to really understand what’s at stake for your characters?

Each character will have their own agenda and here begins the possibilities for conflict and struggle. The writing journey will be about how you sometimes guide, sometimes drag kicking and screaming, and sometimes just stand back and let your characters work it out for themselves, so that resolution, be it good, bad or otherwise, is found.

Our characters must be agents for change because whatever is at stake it matters enough to them (and to you as the writer) to tell this story.

 

Ken Ward