What’s it about?


I don’t know what other writers feel when they are asked this perfectly fair and reasonable question. I tend to have a version of the blurb available in my mind when I try to reply, a bit about how the book came about, and whether its genre is ‘tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, historical-pastoral, etc, etc.’, to abbreviate Polonius. I’m happy to talk to you about what happens in my books. But if you want to know what one of my books means, you’ve got me there.

I don’t set out with a theory or a message or an attempt to convert anybody or anything. In fact, I have a strong dislike for fiction that preaches. My impatience with Lawrence and Hardy is a case in point. My litmus test here is whether there is a discernible sense of humour involved. So if you’ve guessed that Bunyan makes me yawn and Swift makes me giggle, you’re on the money.

That’s not to say that my writing is meaningless, or I hope not. I want the meaning to be up to the reader. My own thoughts and feelings (and prejudices) are in there, obviously, but they are not consciously implanted in characters who represent my worldview. I have been reading Kingsley Amis’s letters and was impressed by his advice to an aspiring novelist: ‘I shouldn’t worry about central ideas and such; if it works properly a central idea will emerge even though you may not be conscious of having put it there.’ Exactly. Tell the story. You may not have control over anything else.

It’s over a year since Martin was published and some time since I last blogged, but I have not been idle. Over the last few days, I have been working on a major edit of my second novel, Humphrey & Jack. It’s about Youth and Age and a friendship which leaps the divide – and it’s a comedy. I’ll say no more for the moment, except that I have been blessed by priceless editorial advice from both sides of the Atlantic. It will appear early in 2019.

Cherries, a collection of five short stories, has been receiving a final polish. It will be available for eReaders on October 31st, and as a paperback on November 5th. I really enjoyed writing these tales. There are lots of details about them in the ‘Books’ section of my website.

I was going to rest after these labours but somehow I’m already six chapters into a third novel called The Northern Elements. Earth, Air, Fire and Water are represented by an exhumation, the view from the top of a factory chimney, arson and a drowning. It is set in my native Blackburn in 1890 and 1960. In each of the time periods, five boys are ‘larking’ about. Their adventures are connected by the elements.

The five boys in the Fry’s chocolate bar at the top of this post have nothing whatsoever to do with the story at all. It’s just that I could really eat one now with this glass of Rioja.

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I loved Hardy’s novels as a teenager but nowadays I always have the feeling that he’s trying too hard. I also tend to recoil at Victorian sentimentalism. That’s a bit odd because I love Dickens, though he’s guilty of both sins. I used to read ‘The Death of Little Nell’ to my sixth forms at Christmas as a festive laugh. I just think Dickens’ vision and imagination are in a different league.

“What’s is about?” is a really tough question. “God, sex and death” is a good an answer as any. If you say, “Ethical and moral problems,” you’ve lost a sale. Television, films and mass market paperbacks have pushed readers’ thinking into narrow categories: romance, science fiction, crime, westerns, &c., but the reality is that books like “Martin,” and dare I say, mine, colour outside the lines pretty comprehensively. As for meaning, there are things in my stories, and presumably Thomson’s, that have significance only to us, and the irony is that those are often the things that drove us to write the book.

Absolutely. I’d go as far as to say that really worthwhile books are genre-busters – they absorb and transcend the tropes and conventions of a genre. Hamlet is about so much more than revenge.

Ian’s writing is attractive to me because quite often it doesn’t fit into a specific genre. He doesn’t confine himself to a narrow genre path. Many times a genre only reveals itself after a book is written. The minute one tries to aim for a genre, you are not only narrowing the bounds of your creative potential, but also narrowing your audience, your prospective buyers/readers.

“What’s it about?” can also be asked regarding other modes of artistic expression – such as painting or Fine Art photography. Nothing is more irksome than an artist who attempts to give their work profound little names (such as “Lazy Afternoon in Atlantis”) thereby disallowing the work to speak for itself.

As a proofreader I am certainly and particularly focused on the “trees”, but I must also do the author justice and view the “forest”. More often than not, the story has many more aspects than what is obvious.

I agree totally. It’s a pity that publishers and bookshops are so obsessed with established genres. No wonder so many writers take the self-publishing route. You also obliquely remind me that in a historical period where there is an obsession with genre, you risk stagnation. Where is the great drama of the middle of the Eighteenth Century, for instance? Some mildly amusing stuff but a lot of stodgy pudding. Not really surprising when rule-bound critics were complaining about Shakespeare mixing comedy and tragedy.

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