Monday, 10 December 2012

Five Things I Didn't Know Until I Was Published

Thoughts after a year's adventures as a debut author, presented as a warning to other authors approaching publication.

1. Be careful what you write about your book. Long before publication, I had written a few short descriptions of my book - on this blog, in emails to my publisher, as a starting point for publicity materials, that sort of thing. I then spent a year watching those phrases getting spliced together, chopped apart and endlessly repeated. Stray bits of your phrasing end up on press releases, on the Amazon description of your book and elsewhere, and then get repeated back to you by bloggers and reviewers. That's the way of the world. But there was one turn of phrase I had used - it was my words describing my book - that I found trite and in-apt, and I kept seeing it everywhere, rebuking me for my own laziness for just tossing it off when I should have been more careful. So when writing a sentence describing your book, even in an ostensibly private email, consider how you'd feel having it read back to you as part of your introduction on stage at a literary festival.

2. Write your acknowledgments as late as possible. I wrote and filed mine really early, with the text of the book, and consequently neglected to include all sorts of people who should have been there. I later revised them but by then it was obvious what I was doing. Leave the acknowledgement to the last possible moment to minimise the risk of leaving people out.

3. Make yourself available. I have had nothing but good experiences with publicists. But all these lovely people seem to be haunted by previous bad experiences with authors. When I was asked to come and talk to a room full of booksellers about why they might be interested in reading and then prominently displaying my book, my answer was of course: "Why yes, naturally, what an amazing opportunity, thank you for setting it up, refusing would be tantamount to self-harm, I accept the invitation with frank gratitude!" However the invitation was proffered with a degree of trepidation, as if the answer is often: "What a monstrous waste of my time! Away with you!" And apparently there are authors who refuse all such opportunities. Which, as I say, strikes me as being tantamount to self-harm, and also a bit of a bum deal for the publisher who has taken you on. So I say, agree to whatever you can.

4. Appearances are harder than they look. I've been to see a lot of authors sitting on a stage in twos and threes, and I've often thought "that looks pretty easy". You sit there, a kindly moderator asks you helpful questions, everyone has a lovely time. I have a fairly pronounced fear of public speaking (although it has ebbed this year), so a chitchat panel or friendly interview always looked pretty good as a format. Well, I was wrong. First, they involve homework. If you're next to another author, it's only polite to read their books, for the audience's sake as much as for social nicety. So, depending on the number of authors you're appearing with and how many books they have written, you can have quite a large reading list and not very much time to cover it. It never occurred to me that literary festivals would involve so much reading. I thought they were what authors did instead of reading. Not that this is a bad thing, at all - it has exposed me to several good books I might never have otherwise picked up, for instance Francesca Kay's The Translation of the Bones and Iosi Havilio's Open Door. It was simply surprising, and I'm unused to having my fiction reading decided for me. Second - bloody hell, it's improvised. It might not be Paxman but you're still expected to come up with something reasonably cogent and, with any luck, interesting or entertaining to an audience at very short notice. Sometimes the mind just goes blank on the most basic things. This happened in the first radio interview I gave, and it was horrible. I was asked to explain how the narrator in Care of Wooden Floors gets from situation A to situation B and I just couldn't. I had forgotten the plot of my own book.

5. People have designs on your reading time. You get asked to read a lot of books, for comment or blurbing. And of course you can hardly say no, because only months before it was you or your editor out there tugging on the sleeve of other writers, who generously gave of their time. And now the wheel has turned, the bill is due. Free books, how awful, I know. Don't get me wrong - as with the literary festivals, this doesn't even qualify as work, especially when whatever you've been asked to read is incredibly good, as is the case with the novel I'm reading at present. However it does mean that your leisure reading time rapidly gets programmed - an injection of a modicum of duty into a private and intimate realm that can feel like quite a violation.

There are, of course, a lot more than five things I know now that I didn't know this time last year, but that's all for now. If I think of another five I'll post them.

Friday, 30 November 2012


"Giddy futurity": The Cybersyn Operations Room

A first for me: I have a piece in the New York Times, relating David Cameron's "Number 10 Dashboard" app to Stafford Beer's "Cybersyn" system for democratic socialism, as proposed for Salvador Allende's Chile. It's a welcome chance to point people to Eden Medina's recent book on the subject, which I reviewed for Icon earlier this year (Icon 106).

As well as Medina's book, here's a full accounting of my sources:

“Turn off your iPad, David Cameron, and start dealing with Britain's debt”
Fraser Nelson, Daily Telegraph, 17 May 2012

“Fast Stream Case Study 4: Improving Digital Capability”
Cabinet Office website, November 2012

“David Cameron tests real-time economic data app on iPad”
The Guardian, 8 November 2012

“David Cameron tests iPad 'government dashboard' app”
Daily Telegraph, 8 November 2012

"Apple's iPad saves Greece from $140b debt" [sic]
Macworld, 23 May 2012

Thursday, 8 November 2012

On the Canal

Yesterday I was a guest on Kit Caless's wonderful Resonance FM show "Mapping the Metropolis" alongside the author and critic Lee Rourke. We talked about canals and "stunning canalside developments". Banality, regeneration, psychosis, dead zones, network society, the general awfulness of residential architecture ... it's all a bit of a blur in retrospect but I had a lot of fun and hopefully it seemed an amusing and stimulating hour. Anyway the whole thing is up on Soundcloud now, so have at it. I can't be certain but I think we went the whole hour without mentioning I__n S______r. There's also music.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Appearances in November

There's a fair amount to report in November, to make up for a fairly quiet October*.

The book
First up, Care of Wooden Floors is now on sale in the USA by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, and throughout November it's just $3.99 on the Kindle as part of the Kindle 100 promotion. However I do urge you to consider buying the hardback, which is a beautiful object.

Here I am talking about the book from Amazon's own video, against a variety of scenic Shoreditch backdrops.

Here I am at the Huffington Post talking about the somewhat unusual business of being the first debut novelist published directly by Amazon. I was also interviewed by the New York Times and NPR, and the book has had some really good reviews, including this rave from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Many more nice reviews on the Amazon page, if you should be so inclined.

Also I understand that Puulattian Kunnossapito, the Finnish edition of COWF published by the good folks at Moreeni, is also out now. Or very soon. Physical copies of it exist, anyway, look:

Thanks to my Finnish translator, Seppo Raudaskoski, for that photo and for rendering the book into Finnish.

Talking (mostly in south London)
On Wednesday 7 November at 1pm Lee Rourke and I will be taking part in Kit Caless's series Mapping the Metropolis on Resonance FM. We will be talking about canals, a subject dear to Lee's heart. (If you haven't read Lee's book The Canal, you really should - read John Self's review, linked above, if you're not sure.)

On Wednesday 14 November at 7.30pm I'll be interviewing the incomparable Jonathan Meades about his new book, Museum Without Walls, at the wonderful Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace, south London. Here's a Facebook page for the event, and here's an Eventbrite page where you can reserve a ticket. The event is free, but likely to be very popular so it's worth RSVPing. Building Design subscribers can read my review of Museum Without Walls here. I gave it five stars - it's really, really good.

Lastly, but not leastly, on Tuesday 20 November at 7pm I'll be taking part in a fantastic evening of short stories at the Review bookshop in Peckham, part of the Peckham Literary Festival. It's a really great line-up: Benjamin Wood, author of The Bellwether Revivals, Nikesh Shukla, author of Coconut Unlimited, Jim Bob, author of Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham, and Sam Mead, author of A Thing That Was Built to Be Torn Down. And me. FREE.

I have six (six!) very short stories in issue 3 of Disegno magazine (which has a sharp new website). They each describe an "erotic" (or sensual, at least) reaction to a design object, and each is inspired by a true story told by the designer of each piece. It's an experiment in design fiction, but it's not Design Fiction, capital D capital F, in the strictest sense. Some of the stories are funny, some are sad, each taps into that emotional or sensual side of a piece - I'm a shade (50 shades?) uncomfortable with the e-word because I always hear it in the sexful tones of Zapp Brannigan.

Also there are a couple of new Cabinet pieces on the loose. First is a history of that maddening garment, the straitjacket, in Cabinet 46, which is on stands now. Second is an introduction to the fascinating Phillips Hydraulic Computer, a water-powered model of the British economy, in Cabinet 47, out shortly.

Some reviews are also now online: on Edwin Heathcote's charming book The Meaning of Home in Building Design (£, sorry) and on the Barbican's  "Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style" in Icon.

Also, here's an odd little piece I wrote for NPR's "Three Books" strand.

I think that's everything ...

* Outwardly quiet - we had a baby, and it was the longest and busiest month I can remember, even though it involved very little writing work. All very worthwhile though.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The New Aesthetic now and later

My essay on The New Aesthetic has now been up at Aeon for a while, and the Tumblr that started it all is back online. It's a huge old topic, for sure, and that essay was pushing 6,000 words at one point until judicious editing brought it back to a more digestible 3,000 or so. I don't intend to recap its main points here - this post is more intended to tidy up some loose ends.

First of all: did you all have a good look around the rest of Aeon? It's a completely new online magazine with an emphasis on ideas, culture, science and memoir. Take some time and have a poke around at the other essays online in the launch edition, and bookmark the site, it's worth it.

Second, some loose ends from the essay itself. Some responses, such as Rory Stott's, wondered at the next steps for the New Aesthetic: if it isn't a movement (and it isn't), could there be a movement? Having identified the political concerns inherent in the New Aesthetic, what can be done about them? How should designers act?

... Which is a whole 'nother essay in itself, but there are a couple of things I'd like to point to. First is to properly credit the work of BERG. I first came across the idea that technological seamlessness could be A Bad Thing in conversation with Schulze, Jones and Webb, while I was writing my Icon profile of the studio last year (Icon 099). Contra pernicious seamlessness, they said their philosophy was one of "beautiful seams". Which could be a New Aesthetic design manifesto in a nutshell, or part of one. Also if you want to see incredibly smart people designing with New Aesthetic antennae turned on and properly calibrated, look to BERG.

The other direction to look is the work of Keller Easterling, possibly the most important architectural theorist working today. I've just finished reading "The Action is the Form: Victor Hugo's TED Talk", her essay for Strelka Press, and it's just astonishing. It's like sipping from networked broth in which the architecture of tomorrow is broiling. The essay forms a bridge between Easterling's 2005 book Enduring Innocence, which introduced the idea of architecture being reduced to a series of "spatial products", and architecture as nothing but an expression of data, and her forthcoming book Extrastatecraft, on zones, which is likely to be incredibly special and important if this essay for Design Observer is anything to go by. God only knows if she's even aware of the New Aesthetic, but she perfectly shows how it couples with architecture and what it could mean for activism. So, my advice is make those essays your next stop, then buy her books. She knows what's going on.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Joining the paperback club

Care of Wooden Floors officially came out in paperback in the UK yesterday, although it's been on the shelves in a few places for a few days and might take a day or two to filter through everywhere. It's part of the Waterstones Book Club this autumn, which means you can get it there for a substantial discount and if you don't like it they'll give you your money back. So, a pretty enticing offer, but it's available from all good retailers, be they your friendly local indie bookseller, affable railway terminal stationer or hail-fellow-well-met internet retail colossus. 

Monday, 20 August 2012

Collected Irks

This is a rant concerning a detail that many of you will consider inconsequential. But this is my blog, and blogs are home of the triviality-induced crosseyed hissy-fit. So no apologies.

I love anthologies and compilations of essays and reviews. Love 'em. Can't get enough. I've just finished Christopher Hitchens' mammoth Arguably, presently I'm reading Jonathan Meades' hefty Museum Without Walls, next in line is Mark Dery's welterweight I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. Such is my taste for the format I might even get the AA Gill. I don't know what gave me this taste for longform episodic nonfiction; Tom Wolfe or Hunter S Thompson, but I can't remember who I read first.

However I have a recurring problem with these anthologies, one that baffles me as much as it irritates me. These collected essays all appeared at different times and in different places. They are often assembled out of chronological order. That's all fine. But the date and location of appearance is mostly only given at the end of each essay. That's annoying. But it can be worse, and worse. Sometimes only the date is given, and the original publication is hidden in the copyright info or the index. Sometimes (and this is the case with the new Meades) only the date is given and there is no way of telling where the essay appeared. And on very rare occasions, not even the date is given.

Date and location of first publication are vital pieces of information, crucial to properly understanding the texts, and they should be given at the head of the essay, under the title. I am sick of having to skip ahead to see if, for instance, X is writing about JG Ballard before or after his death, or Y is writing about George W Bush before or after his re-election. Why are readers treated this way? Is there a rationale beyond mere convention? Do anthology editors believe that readers do not like to be reminded of the fact that they are reading "second hand" pieces? That seems condescending and deceptive. Some other reason? Perhaps essayists or their editors do not like to let readers see how a writer's cloth is cut to suit their clients - how a voice might seem to alter depending on whether one is appearing under the masthead of The Spectator or The Guardian. But this sort of subtlety is precisely why contextual information is invaluable. And we are all adults - surely the intelligent reader will appreciate that writers gotta write.

In summary: knock it off. Please. And to end on a positive note, William Gibson's Distrust that Particular Flavour is a recent example of an anthology that did it right and put the info up front. Sadly it's the only one I can think of. But it can be done. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Appearances in August

Is it 12 August already? Crikey, how time flies. Here's where I can be found (the rest of) this month.

Most importantly, I'm appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 August. Appearing twice, in fact. At 8.30pm I'm reading & talking with Argentinian debut novelist Iosi Havilio, whose book Open Door is published in the UK by recently-Booker-longlist-anointed And Other Stories. A bit before that, at 5.30pm, I'm participating in the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers Series, reading in support of imprisoned Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega. Please do come along. I'll also be in Edinburgh for a few days around these events, so if I know you & you're in town, drop me a line - it would be particularly nice to put some faces to some Twitter names.

The Edinburgh reading will also be the (fairly low-key) launch of the paperback of Care of Wooden Floors - they will be on sale at the event, an early chance to buy as the official pub date is 30 August. Anyway, please do look out for it in shops from the end of August, with its charming green cover, left, designed by Jo Walker.

I'm in print in a few other places in August as well. Everyone should rush out and buy Icon 111, not because of my contributions but because it's a truly wonderful issue with the theme "Restless Cities". Under that banner comes Geoff Manaugh on the implications of ungovernable "feral" cities, Debika Ray on the neoliberal "Charter city" concept, Fatema Ahmed's interview with professor David Harvey on cities in revolt and Justin McGuirk on Sao Paulo's periphery. My contributions are a review of PD Smith's wonderful book CITY and a short report on Carmody Groarke's Filling Station.

Another review by me appears in this week's Building Design - on the subject of Rowan Moore's Why We Build - ambitious, erudite, witty, gossipy, mostly excellent, with some weak points. Update, 13.8: The piece is now online (subs only, sorry).

For a change of pace, there's an essay by me in the new Architectural Review Asia-Pacific (#127), out shortly, on the "psychopathic interior" - that is, the home decor tastes of serial killers. Check it out.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

COWF in Miniature

Doll's houses aren't generally my thing, but if you've read Care of Wooden Floors you'll know Oskar's eerie flat has a doll's-house quality to it - a small world, exact to every detail, set up to please its owner. The hapless narrator, inserted into this world, becomes something of a plaything for Oskar's whims.

Perhaps my parents picked up on this vibe, because when the book was published back in February, they made me a doll's-house set themed around it. Nice gift, huh? And an amazing thing to do for a writer, if you have one in the family - I was left pretty much in tears. Just recently I talked about it with my American editor and it was only then that I thought it might be nice to share the set with the world.

So here it is, set up. All the important elements of the book are present: a sheet of wood veneer for the floor, two cats, a piano, red wine and cleaning products.

What you see on the floor by the foot of the table is a little portable tile of veneer with a red mark on it - the first stain. On the other side of the tile is a bigger, redder stain, for ... later.

There's another view of the stain, and the bucket of cleaning products (including blue jaycloth) and mop. Exactly as described.

There's the second cat in the piano. (I'm aware the cats are the wrong colours, and I seem to have put the keys on the piano the wrong way around, don't write in!) The set also includes sheet music for Oskar's great work, Variations on Tram Timetables, and a couple of Oskar's hundreds of bossy notes.

In a rather meta touch, there's also a copy of Care of Wooden Floors - my Care of Wooden Floors, not the holistic New Age lifecare bible by Chandler Novack.

That's it. My parents are wonderful people. There are a few more pictures on my Flickr photostream

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Appearances in June

Not much in the way of print this month (more in July), but two real-life appearances, both next week.

On Monday 11 June I'm reading at the wonderful regular lit night The Book Stops Here. Also appearing are two other novelists: Emily Perkins, whose most recent book is The Forrests, and Chibundu Onuzo, author of The Spider King's Daughter - a fellow Desmond Elliott Prize longlistee and one of the Guardian's literary talents to watch in 2012. It's at The Alley Cat, 4 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LP - the event is free, doors open at 7.30pm, readings start at 8pm. Come!
Update, 11.6.12: Also reading is DW Wilson, winner of last year's BBC National Short Story Prize, who has either just been added to the line-up or (more likely) I missed the first time around - for which, apologies.

On Wednesday 13 June, I'm taking part in the launch of USELESS: New Writing in Art and Design, a publication produced by the students of the Royal College of Art's inaugural MA in Critical Writing. As the name suggests, the theme of the publication is USELESSNESS, a subject I'll be saying a few words about, before a series of performances on the theme. I led a couple of workshops on this project and the work being produced was really first rate - if you want to get a taste of the next generation of design writers then this is the place. The event is at the Banner Repeater gallery in Hackney and starts at 6.30pm. As far as I know it's free. Come!
Update, 11.6.12: More details about the event here. DJ sets by DJ sets by David CrowleyBrian DillonJeremy Millar and Nina Power. Unmissable, I'd say.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Infrastructure of Civility

Last year I was asked to write an essay for Artangel on 1395 Days Without Red, paired films by Sejla Kameric and Anri Sala (which it funded). Sadly the piece never went live due to timetabling issues and I forgot about it until now. So here it is. 

A group of people gathers on a street corner. They all face the same direction. Is this a queue? Not a word is spoken but clearly there is an understanding between them. All observe an invisible line on the pavement, not advancing so much as a toe beyond it. They are waiting to cross the street. The scene is at once familiar and disturbing; the street is quiet, the shared stance is too formal, too precise, and the group's seriousness, its watchfulness, puts the observer on edge. It is as if they fear the sunlight streaming down the street – they keep to the shadow. This patient group brings to mind the dusk-time photographs of Gregory Crewdson, in which everything is completely normal and thoroughly, horribly, wrong.

How do we know something is wrong? We are picking up on the information the group radiates about its situation. This is no special talent: we do it every day on the street, especially if we live in a large city. The more we see of this particular group, the more it unsettles. When an individual breaks from the group to cross, their separation from the others is in itself troubling – as a whole, they are so still. More troubling is that they cross at a run, or as close to a run as they can manage, as many of them are elderly. When they arrive at the far corner, gasping for breath, they resume their walk at normal pace. The city is Sarajevo, still haunted by the memory of its 1395-day siege during the 1992-1996 Bosnian War. Streets in the centre, certain vistas and angles, were covered by snipers. An act as mundane as crossing the street while picking up supplies became a tangle with death.

In Sejla Kameric and Anri Sala's twin films 1395 Days Without Red. a memorial of those times, there are no guns, barely a shot, no signs of danger. All we see is the behaviour of the citizens of Sarajevo, and the deadly games they were forced to play as part of their routine. The danger they are in is communicated entirely by their reaction to it – their trepidation, the agonising dash, the sobbing breaths after. These clues do more than enough to fill in the rest of the picture: the sniper at the window, his field of vision, the nearest safe point, the distance between.

Every day we read the signs around us, we understand our fellow citizens. When we see a group of people looking up, we look up. A group of people gathered silently on a pavement, visibly not progressing beyond a certain point, would make any of us pause and at least consider the reason. We are reading the city: it is a mixture of unseeing and seeing. On the bus, the behaviour of one passenger causes them to suddenly stand out – they are agitated, restless, they have not engaged the invisibility cloak that makes them appear like anyone else, that allows us to disregard them after a microsecond of consideration, an appraisal we are not even aware of making. Other calculations follow: are they drunk? Possibly violent? Just having a bad day? We can read the demeanour of the young man who is seen doubled over by effort, fighting for breath – we know the next run will be a big one, and sure enough the view stretches out to encompass a vast, deserted intersection, a shadeless desert. We knew it before we saw it, by observing a fellow citizen.

In Sarah Kane's harrowing 1995 play Blasted – inspired by and written during the conflict in Bosnia – a soldier demands a cigarette from the man whose hotel room he has just abruptly entered. Why, asks the man. “'Cause I've got a gun and you haven't,” says the soldier. And he gets his cigarette. Violence, or the possibility of violence, has imposed a new social calculus on the interaction. He has the gun so he gets what he wants. And so it is in Sarajevo. Our shared, instinctive urban behaviour – the way we minimise hassle to each other, the essential codes that make densely populated city life possible – aggregates into rituals, unspoken rules, an unwritten code. Disruption to these rituals causes angst: we know to keep walking when we pass through the ticket barriers on the Tube, clearing the path for others, and it's frustrating when a group of tourists fails to do this. Violence dissolves these codes, and imposes its own. Our basic expectation that we will not be killed by a bullet while walking down the street no longer applies. The faded white lines of the pedestrian crossings in 1395 Days Without Red could be the ruins of an impossibly refined civilisation, so remote is the safety they promise. The title refers to the necessity, during the siege, of avoiding brightly coloured clothes – a new law imposed by the madness that had taken the city. But it could equally refer to an absence of stop lights – years without the basic infrastructure of civility that cities need to operate.

But the city is not all civility. The possibility of a violent end while innocently going out to buy bread naturally fills us with horror – but this combination of mundanity and terror is not entirely out of place in any street. The social codes that manage our behaviour in the city, that smooth paths and prevent squabbles, are not the absence of violence – they have grown from the underlying possibility of violence. In Europe cities have been the venue for both civilisation at its most exquisite and for savagery at its basest. Kameric's film opens with a philharmonic orchestra performing in a modernist cultural space, intercut with tumbled graves in a public park. When not running for her life, the films' protagonist (played by Isabel Meridu) hums the orchestra's tune. A city, for all its affirmative gathering of human life and enterprise, often also hosts crime and mayhem. It is always a place of death as well as life. We coexist with all these aspects. For some this coexistence is closer to the surface than it should be, and 1395 Days reminds us of the hum of violence in all cities. As we follow Meridu, we are sometimes directly behind her, seeing the back of her head, sometimes watching her neutral but serious face from the front, other times watching her pass from a fixed vantage point – perhaps the view of the young skinhead in the park, whose sunken eyes are locked on a distant point, whose field of vision is stained red by nearby lights. (Perhaps he is a gunman; very possibly he's just an innocent, but the logic of the siege has obliged us to consider the possibility.) There is an inescapable voyeuristic about the way the camera follows Meridu, especially when we are fixed on the back of her neck. Combined with the suspension of safety indicated by the desperate dashes across intersections, the implicit threat in the air is sexualised. We never see where she is looking, what she is seeing, but we can feel something of how she feels; a desire not to be seen.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Where to find me in May

In the actual
I'll be taking part in a great event at Waterstones Piccadilly, London, on 16 May. It's four for the price of one: four of the Waterstones 11 all reading from our books, talking, answering questions, all that interacting with people stuff. The lineup is myself, Patrick Flanery ("Absolution"), Anna Raverat ("Signs of Life") and Rachel Joyce ("The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry"). That's also three Desmond Elliott prize longlistees in one place, for anyone keeping score. We will be "talking about their inspirations and their journeys from unpublished writer to literary success!", according to the listing. Tickets £5/£3, start time 6.30pm, more details 020 7851 2400.

In print - nonfiction
"The Towers of the Dead" is my contribution to Icon #108 (June 2012). It's a long interview with British Designer Thomas Heatherwick on what is perhaps his most ambitious and unusual project yet: an immense aviary enclosing the Parsi "towers of silence" in Mumbai. Central to the Parsi faith is the practice of "sky burial", in which the dead are left at the top of stone towers to be consumed by vultures. But modernity is threatening the practice, and with it the survival of a religion that is more ancient than Christianity. Not the usual brief for an architect, and Heatherwick's proposed response is far from the usual work of architecture, so please do be sure to pick up Icon while it's out. The rest of the issue, themed "Sacred Spaces" is great, too: Sam Jacob on Apple Stores, Edwin Heathcote on why architects love to design churches, Riya Patel on new ritual objects for a secular age, Owen Hatherley on Pyongyang, and much else.

Be sure to pick up Volume #31, "Guilty Landscapes" - it's an edition of the architecture magazine co-produced with the Unknown Fields Division, and thus includes contributions from a load of UFD collaborators, including me. My contribution is a long essay, "Zones of Anxiety", mostly about the Baikonur Cosmodrome as surreal militarised environment. I haven't seen any of the other features but from the contents page it looks like an amazing lineup: Kate Davies and Liam Young (of course), lots of other Unknown Fielders, Volume stalwarts Brendan Cormier and Arjen Oosterman, photographers like Chris Jordan, John Gollings, Edward Burtynsky and Bas Princen, filmmaker Michael Madsen (who knows where the bodies are buried), poet Mario Petrucci (of "Heavy Water: A Film for Chernobyl" fame) and just tonnes more.

If anyone's asking themselves "whatever happened to Toxic Tourism?", this Volume essay is a sizeable appetiser.

I'm also in New Humanist #127, May/June 2012, reviewing Peter Stamm's new novel "Seven Years" (Granta). Here is a link to the review.

Edited to add: I mentioned this in a previous round-up but I was jumping the gun a bit as it only recently came out - "Pocket Utopias", an essay of mine about the design of insane asylums in the 19th century and their influence on the rise of the suburb, is in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #124. It's a big and beautiful redesign issue, so well worth picking up while it's available. (There's a digital edition if you can't find a copy.)

In print - fiction
That's right, new fiction. Two short stories, although British readers might find them slightly out of the way.

I'm in "Man-Made Lands" a special "chapbook" accompanying the Spring/Summer 2012 edition of Ninth Letter, the literary magazine produced by the graduate creative writing programme and school of art & design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Edited by Scott Geiger, "Man-Made Lands" intersects literature and architectural space. Looking at future literatures that could be generated from real places, I imagine "Selections From The Foyles Cache", a book composed of all the fragments of emails, network updates and (of course) unpublished novels produced on laptops in the coffee shop at Foyles on Charing Cross Road.

And another. The third edition of Swedish fashion culture magazine Vestoj is themed "Fashion and Shame", and includes a short story by me called "Mirror" - a brief riff on paparazzi practices and the head-coverings used by defendants on their way into court hearings.

That's all for this month.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

COWF longlisted for Desmond Elliott Prize

I'm thrilled to be able to say that Care of Wooden Floors is one of 10 contenders for this year's Desmond Elliott Prize. Here's the full longlist:

Absolution by Patrick Flanery
Bed by David Whitehouse
Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson
The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood
Care Of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles
The Land Of Decoration by Grace McCleen
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal
The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Worthy foes. Flanery, McCleen and Joyce are fellow Waterstones 11 selectees, so it's interesting to be grouped with them again. Beyond that I'm afraid I don't have any analysis worth offering, I'm still a bit dazed.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Hello America

I'm pleased to be able to announce that US rights to Care of Wooden Floors have been sold, to Amazon Publishing. This deal has actually been chugging along for a while, but it was formally revealed in Publishers Weekly about a week ago, and I was able to meet some of the Amazon team when they came over for the London Book Fair last week. I'm particularly pleased that my editor will be novelist and former Believer editor Ed Park. Publication date is 9 October this year, so not long from now.

It's interesting to be published by Amazon in the USA. As you might know, Amazon is a complete newcomer as a publisher. The hardcover will be released through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's catalogue; the exact name or branding of the Amazon Publishing imprint seems to be something of a grey area for the time being. This autumn's list is its first ever, and it's a privilege to be one of the very first books from a new house, especially one which will be so closely examined. It should make for an interesting experience.

Above is the US cover for the book - quite a departure from the UK cover. American friends, please look out for it in the "fall". Canadian friends, don't forget that the Anchor Canada-published edition is on sale now.

Friday, 20 April 2012


Last night I watched the British premiere of "2 Broke Girls", an American sitcom which has been much talked about as being the next big thing - edgy, smart, in tune with the times. It doesn't really break the mould of the sitcom format so much as scuff against it a little. A diner, a flatshare; hell, a down-on-her-luck WASP princess suddenly appearing in an eatery is how "Friends" started. The writing is what you might call "snappy" or tight" - which is to say a torrent of extremely clever one-liners and comebacks which cumulatively suggest rooms full of college-educated people trying to out-funny each other rather than actual speech. But I enjoyed it far more than I expected, laughing out several times, and in terms of socio-economic realism it looks like Mike Leigh next to "Friends". Would certainly watch again. The reason I bring this up is that I was interested in "2 Broke Girls" title sequence, which you can watch here. Here are a couple of screenshots:

It's a fairly standard, brief, helicopter shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. What makes it interesting is the retro film effect, which suggests (say) a tourism film about Manhattan from the 1950s. Why something so backward-looking for a sitcom which is otherwise meant to be so up-to-the-minute? then it hit me - it's an Instagram filter. Instagram applied to television! That really is cutting-edge nostalgia.

Edited 23.4.12 to add: "Would certainly watch again", and I did, when it was repeated last night. And what stuck out was something I didn't notice at all the first time around - a very intrusive laugh track. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Floorboards of Canada

Next week sees publication of the first overseas edition of Care of Wooden Floors, in the great nation of Canada! It's being published by the fine folks at Anchor Canada, part of Random House, and will officially go on sale on 3 April in paperback and ebook. The cover is almost identical to the British one, as you can see below. So, Canadian friends, buy, buy, buy! Please.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Floors on Tour, April: Oxford and Crystal Palace

I'm participating in two public events next month, so please come along if you can.

On Sunday 1 April at 10am I'll be at the Oxford Literary Festival, participating in a Writer's Round Table with Francesca Kay, author of the Orange-winning An Equal Stillness, and Romance Novel of the Year shortlistee Rachel Hore. We'll be discussing our own and each others' work, and "the joys and sorrows of writing fiction", so it promises a discussion of technique, coffee-making and how to avoid being distracted by the internet. I'm looking forward to getting some tips myself, especially on the last point. Or it could go another way entirely. Tickets are £10.

On Friday 13 April at 7.30pm I'll be at Bookseller Crow on the Hill in Crystal Palace, South London, in a reading with fellow debut novelists Lloyd Shepherd and Sophia Blackwell. There'll be readings from our respective books - Lloyd is the author of the gripping The English Monster, which I keep meaning to blog about, and Sophia first novel is called After My Own Heart - and some discussion, presumably on the subject of early adventures in publishing as that's where we're all at. This event is free.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Review: Ma Ligne

This is a review from Icon 100, October 2011. It wasn't put online as part of Icon's routine archiving so I'm posting it here.

“Mindless violence” is a concept that has been much aired in the media in the weeks after August’s riots in London and other UK cities. No doubt some violence really is mindless: spontaneous, purposeless, from nothing, to nowhere. The term was, however, mostly used as a declaration of lack of interest in the workings of the minds that engaged in a four-day carnival of theft and destruction on British streets. Thus the discussion can be sped along to retribution without any tiresome consideration of motive or causation. But violence and casual destruction deserve more attention than that. We can hardly do much about minimising them if we don’t examine them.

So we come to Ma Ligne. This is a curious little book, slim and highly seductive between grey suede covers neatly printed with the mysterious legend FUZI UV TPK. It is part art monograph, part police dossier: a catalogue of destruction. “Fuzi” is a French artist and, there’s really no point in being delicate about this, a vandal. Ma Ligne brings us five years of his work: his tag sprayed and scrawled over train carriages or cut into the fabric of the seats. Fuzi is not Banksy – he will not boost anyone’s house price and the council will not be listing his work. This is a loving tribute to routine vandalism. And seeing this kind of material degradation in a posh hardback edition of photographs gives us a crucial fraction of distance, which we can use to think about it without endorsing or condemning.

Fuzi’s medium and gallery was the St Lazare/Mantes la Jolie train line, which serves the western suburbs of Paris. The snapshots are mostly depopulated, giving them a melancholy, after-hours feeling. The only people who appear are members of Fuzi’s group, UV, Ultra Violent. The lack of audience is a necessity. This work takes place in moments of non-looking, inattention, when passengers, rail authorities and police are elsewhere. Once the act is complete, it is all about looking: catching attention, putting one’s name in front of people, claiming a space.

The accompanying texts (in French) give some background to this dedicated daubing, smashing and slashing. They’re a liberating read, even when you have to limp your way through with a dictionary, simply because Fuzi never really tries to justify his work. We don’t have to engage with an argument over why he’s right and our bourgeois notions are wrong. Instead what we get is a kind of love letter to the line, “My Line” (as the title says). “Elle √©tait tout pour moi,” she was all for me, he writes tenderly. He enjoyed her every day, listening to the wheels, moving through her and around her in a state of perfect freedom, with rules or laws, “all-powerful”, writing his name on her skin. A career of vandalism becomes a passionate (and, clearly, abusive) love affair, with the police in the role of jealous husband. The poem Ode √† la Destruction, one of two, layers a strong sexual vibe through the violence, “strong sensations, primitive”, with seats as “consenting victims”. Arrival at St Lazare seems cathartic. It’s troubling, haunting stuff, consciously provocative; certainly not mindless. Tags are more luminous after reading it, if no more attractive, justifiable or desirable.

Ma Ligne, FUZI UV TPK, Edition Patrick Frey, €46

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Ruins, asylums, fetishism, more of the usual

With the book launch* fun and excitement dying down I'll be making a return to more regular blogging shortly. Meanwhile here's a quick overview of new and forthcoming print journalism and other writing.

For starters I recommend the issue of Icon that's presently on newsstands. Icon 105 (March 2012) is devoted to Ruins and includes 2,000 words from me on Pripyat, the ghost city in the Chernobyl exclusion zone - this is of course based on my trip there with the Unknown Fields Division in July last year, and is also the first writing to appear from the Toxic Tourism project. More is on the way. There are also ruin-related pieces from my friends Douglas Murphy and Matt Tempest.

The issue also includes my review of William Gibson's collected essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor. Spoiler: I thought it was great.

(Douglas's piece is a riff from his book, The Architecture of Failure, which launches today. Buy buy buy!)

But be quick - at the end of next week Icon 106 (April 2012) will be out. It's a special issue devoted to the mobile phone, the most important object of our time, and includes a short piece by me on how mobiles have wreaked havoc in film and TV drama. There are a tonne of other pieces as well by writers including Will Self, Lee Rourke, James Bridle, Kieran Yates, Kazys Varnelis and many more. Plus a review by me of a new book about the Allende government's Cybersyn project. Spoiler: I thought it was great.

Back to longer pieces. I'm proud to be included in the first issue of Transgressive Culture, a new academic journal examining all aspects of transgression. There's a table of contents for issue 1 here - my contribution is an essay-length review of FUEL Publishing's book Dressing for Pleasure (link mildly NSFW), which looks back at vintage British fetish magazine AtomAge. Pick up a copy of TC if you can, there's some great stuff in it.

I'm also proud to be in the relaunched Architectural Review Australia - at the printers now and out shortly. The theme of issue AR124 is "Architecture and the Body" - my contribution looks at Victorian asylums, how their builders thought a good building could heal a troubled mind, and how that thinking later influenced the rise of the suburb.

And in case you missed it on Twitter, here's a piece I wrote for Untitled Books about "My Week".

Some more big chunks of writing coming soon.

* Did I mention I have a book out? In case you somehow missed my round-the-clock hawking of my novel, please go and buy it now.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Splatter and Non-Splatter

The Hatchet Job of the Year award is a new prize intended for "the author of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months". Why reward bad reviews? The organisers point to declining newspaper readership and the declining influence of newspaper book reviewers. The prize, they say, will help promote reviews that both informative and entertaining.

Hatchet Job of the Year is a crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking. It rewards critics who have the courage to overturn received opinion, and who do so with style. Most of all, it is a public celebration of that most underpaid and undervalued* form of journalism: the book review.

John Sutherland glosses some of the issues around the prize in the Guardian - This is a field where I am simultaneously poacher, gamekeeper and restaurant patron with a taste for wild rabbit. In my day job I commission and write reviews, including many book reviews. I am also days away from publishing my first novel, and about to get my first reviews. (I hope. Even bad reviews would be better than no reviews.) And I love to read reviews - including bad reviews, which might even have the entertainment edge**.

Although the fledgling novelist in me doesn't might have some qualms about encouraging reviewers to be negative, overall the HJOTY strikes me as a good thing. The more prizes for criticism and critical writing the better. Even if reviewers are so emboldened they start dealing out stinkers to the undeserving, that might not be a wholly bad thing. I think an unfairly harsh review prompts more debate than an unfairly positive review, and the more debate and talk around books the better.

Where I think it has gone wrong is the name. "Hatchet job" suggests ... well, it suggests what it says, someone running at a target flailing an axe without finesse, a Patrick Bateman onslaught of murder; brutal, total, gleeful, arbitrary, unkind to the surrounding furnishings. A good bad review is a lot more precise than that. It's more like a gangland execution: impersonal, precise, neat. An icepick to the back of the head, no splatter, no witnesses. The victim is no less dead but the affair is rather more civil. And I'm pleased to note that the stiletto is more evident than the machete in the shortlisted reviews. Adam Mars Jones, Leo Robson and Mary Beard all aim for the weak points, the fatal flaws, and an economy of strikes bring down the mark. Jenni Russell and Geoff Dyer have the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger demeanour of professionals. Only Camilla Long really seems to have got busy with the axe and the woodchipper.

So what to call the award, if hatchet is too blunt? Stiletto was my first thought, but that's better suited to crime writing, or erotica. Better to go with Icepick of the Year, because then we could call them the pickies, which has a delightful second thread of meaning.

* An aside. Undervalued, really? My early journalistic background was in the trade press. The better professional magazines regularly expose serious wrongdoing and incompetence in their sectors only to have their best stories lifted, often without attribution, by the broadsheets. I'm sure journalists on local papers might feel similarly. I would dearly love book reviews to have a greatly enhanced cultural status - for instance daily pages in the paper, which theatre & live music somehow get in the Guardian. But book reviews have a cachet that other valuable journalistic fields do not. A lot of people want to review books - I know, I commission a review section, and I get emails from them. I've written a few emails to commissioning editors myself. Dogged technical and trade journalism has far less lustre. I'm sure it didn't even occur to the drafters of the Hatchet manifesto.

** Especially in Fortean Times, I find - maybe it's to do with the often lousy quality of the esoterica it reviews, but when it dishes out a bad review, it really goes for it. They rate everything out of 10, and my eyes always go to the 1, 2 and 3/10 reviews first.