When Marc Gascoigne (chief cyborg at Angry Robot Books) suggested John Coulthart as the cover artist for The Ingenious I was delighted. I’d already admired John’s amazing Under the Pendulum Sun and Daughters of Forgotten Light covers so I was excited to see how he captured the essence of Athanor (sounds like a perfume). It panned out even better than I’d hoped. Just look at the beauteous bloody thing:
John’s done an amazing job of capturing the right mood and some of the novel’s key themes. All that intricate line work isn’t just pretty, it’s crammed with insightful nods to the text and the alchemical nature of the world Isten inhabits. You can see Isten herself, waiting nonchalantly at the side of the street, dwarfed by the bizarre, labyrinthine city she would so dearly love to escape from. Here’s the cover John designed for Jeanette Ng‘s Under the Pendulum Sun:
I know how hard it can be for a cover designer to please the client, the publisher and still scratch their own creative itch. In my misspent youth (well, misspent slightly less old) I designed a few novel covers myself and, though I certainly never mastered it as an art form, I definitely gained some insight into the various pitfalls. I designed this cover for a friend, Mark Newton, just as he was starting out as an author.
And here are a few designs I did for a local publisher, Five Leaves, which is led by the irrepressible Ross Bradshaw (who now runs by far the coolest bookshop in Nottingham).
Unlike John, I can’t draw for toffee, but I used to enjoy playing around with photos and typography. I saw Coralie Bickford-Smith (the genius behind all these beautiful clothbound Penguin covers) do a talk in London, years ago. It was around the time everyone was pronouncing the death of the printed book due to the rise in digital publishing. She made the point that people will always want to own physical books as long as they are beautiful objects in their own right and I think it’s interesting that book design seems to be in a better place than ever. Designers and artists always thrive under pressure and constraints and the need for physical books to earn their place in people’s homes has led to some incredible covers over the last decade or so. Cover artists everywhere have my undying respect. On the whole, I think it’s far easier to write a novel than try and design one.
I’ve spoken to authors who require absolute silence to write, or the ambient sound of a bustling cafe, but I can’t string two words together unless I’m wearing massive 1970s-style headphones and blasting my ears with music. I suppose it works as a kind of mantra, dropping me back into the same state of mind I was in whenever I was last at the keyboard. I have a nice view of from my window and I’ve filled my study with all sorts of inspirational tat, but I always become blind to the real world as soon as I hear the playlist I associate with a particular novel. It’s often just one album, played on a loop, circling round my head for months until I don’t really hear the notes any more, just a weird, white noise that flips me from my Nottingham semi to whatever alternate reality I’m currently writing about. With two young children howling round the house, it can also work as a sonic barrier when I’m being a neglectful dad, burying my head in wizards when I should be making dens with cushions or watching Sing for the 32nd time. The playlist for my next (soon to be announced!) 40k novel was mainly ambient, synthy stuff: Laurie Spiegel, Brian Eno, Steve Roach etc. At one point, I had this same Laurie Spiegel track on a loop for hours on end and I really did start to feel quite spaced out after a while. I love the icy, inhuman beauty of it and it really conjures up a cold, inhuman void kind of atmosphere.
The Ingenious (out in Feb, through Angry Robot!) was written to a playlist consisting of three albums featuring the Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté and another Malian musician, Ali Farka Touré. I only discovered the albums a few weeks before starting the book and they influenced me a lot as a I was describing the city. There’s something magical about how the kora and the guitar twist around each other, glittering and sparkling and tumbling around the melodies. It helped me imagine the sharp, twisted, labyrinthine architecture of Athanor. My original idea was for a Persian-inspired city but as these weird, brittle songs snaked around my head, the city transformed itself, blossoming into something stranger and more convoluted than I had originally imagined.
All those snaking, twisting melodies even changed the prose. I usually try and rein in my more rambling passages (howls of disbelief from anyone who’s ever had to edit my writing) but with this book I relaxed into the flow of the words and let the rhythms tumble away from me. Obviously, I’m not so deluded as to put myself in the same category, but I’ve always thought how wonderful it would be, when describing a fictional city, to write something that comes even close to that rambling, flowing, marble-run opening of Bleak House:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.
Raar! Five year gap between blog posts. That must be a record, even in the sluggardly doldrums of blogdom. Since I last posted, I’ve sired another Hinkling (sorry for taking so long to mention you, Joe, if you’re reading this as a disgruntled adult thinking ‘Why did the lazy-arsed sod take nearly three years to notice me?’) moved house and enjoyed several toddler-induced eye injuries. But now seems a good time to prod this old beast back into life.
I took the plunge last October and became a full-time writer, which has given me the chance to ramp up my output. I’ve been quietly beavering away in the new Hinks Hovel (see below), tripping over plastic construction vehicles and trying to balance Bilbo and Gollum on my clock. (I said ‘clock’!)
I’ve also finished my second Mephiston novel for Games Workshop (see Lie Setiawan‘s cover art above) and two other books for the Black Library – one for Age of Sigmar and another for Warhammer 40,000. The Mephiston book went on sale this weekend (great for reading at barbecues or any other kind of blood sacrifice) and the other two will be released later this year.
As well as the Games Workshop novels, I’ve finished a novel for another publisher that’s released early next year (more on that when it’s announced).
The Hinks Hovel
So far, freelancing seems to suit me, although I’ve found I actually need to get away from the keyboard to have any decent story ideas. I can sit staring at the screen for hours and only squeeze out a few words, but if I go for a walk or a jog and deliberately don’t think about whatever I’m working on, dozens of ideas bubble up from my subconscious and then, when I get back to the computer I find the words come a lot easier. The biggest battle I have with that has been convincing myself that I’m still working, even if I’m not hunched over the computer. Writing, for me at least, seems to be more about thinking than actually hitting keys. If I give my brain the space to think by mooching around the local fields or whatever, I can face down those empty pages with a lot more confidence.
It’s been odd not working as part of a team, so I probably send more emails to editors than they need and the cats are getting sick of me asking them to read my early drafts. I’ve recruited a small editorial team (see below) to give me feedback and to gossip about the cats and they’re becoming more vocal as the months pass. The skull, especially, has some good insights on characterisation and story arcs. The rat just talks about Eastenders though and he keeps stealing my mug.
I’ll be back with more news in a week or two when I’m safe to talk about the book I’ve got coming out in the new year.
Well, the end is nigh. It’s taken me roughly 703 years, but I’m nearing the conclusion of the Orion trilogy. The next few days should see it wrapped up and handed over to Kathryn (wife/editor/satnav device) for a first read. It’s pretty exhilarating seeing all the threads coming together and I won’t be writing anything else for a while, so I’m savouring every word. The book has taken its toll on my writing shed though. A revolting fungal growth has spread across the walls and I’m sure it’s not from this world. I should just have time to rattle off the epilogue before a three-headed worm consumes my swivel chair. (Does house insurance cover that kind of thing? Or would it be classed as Act of Worm?)
It’s only as I reach the end of my woodland adventure that I’ve discovered a book that could have given me loads of new ways to say leafy. Holloway is an infuriatingly well-written collection, produced by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood (illustrator) and Dan Richards. It’s a beautiful paean to the sunken paths and hidden greenways of our oldest woods. It’s short enough to read in an hour or two, but every word is a gem. Macfarlane and Richards seem incapable of writing a dull line. If you’re looking to clear your head of Christmas fug, but can’t be arsed to leave your armchair, this is the book for you.
My other top tip for ridding yourself of the morbid mince pie blues would be this perfect little spine-tingle of a pop song, from Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Ha! I’ve turned into one of those spoons who blog about how rubbish they are at blogging. Awesome. I’ve got a string of excuses though, honest guv. 2013 is turning out to be busybusybusy. On top of starting a grown up new job I’ve had an obscene amount of fun playing at the last of Cable’s comeback gigs. We filled the Garage in Highbury with some of London’s most attractive, tasteful, elegantly attired gentlefolk and then let them sing most of our songs for us. Nice work if you can get it. The Cables have now returned to real lives (I promise!) but what a great way to finish our mini comeback. I’m out of shot in this video, over to the left, so it can’t in any way be egotistical of me to post it.
I’ve also been hammering away at the second Orion novel, Tears of Isha, and it’s almost ready to give up the ghost. I’m on the final chapter and just have a few more grisly ends to tie up before the first draft can wing its way to the editor, Mr Nick Kyme. This book has been a lot more fun to write than the first one. Not sure why. There’s a strong intestinal flavour to the story that makes it really quite disgusting to read, so that’s probably it. (Sorry in advance, proofreaders.)
My final excuse is that work commitments saw me spending last week in Chicago talking to lawyers. Not the best reason to visit a city, I suppose, but before the flight home I had time to dangle my feet over Lake Michigan and get really cold, so it wasn’t all bad. I think I could really have done with some kind of pink, furry cowboy hat. I wonder where Will Oldham got this one from?