Recent reading: Self & I by Matthew De Abaitua, and more

Making the best of a bitterly cold weekend on Bute, I curled up on the sofa beside my new stove, and read a pre-publication copy of Matthew De Abaitua’s Self & I: A Memoir of Literary Ambition. I fully expected both an insightful and a witty read!

The premise is irresistible — De Abaitua reflects on the mid-1990s when as a young, searingly ambitious graduate from the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme he’s hired as live-in writing assistant, or amanuensis, to the already successful, much-in-demand author, Will Self.

Did the book live up to expectations? Well, yes it did!

Will Self has decamped from London to a remote cottage in Suffolk. De Abaitua’s daily tasks range from clearing the fire grate, cycling to the nearest village on postal and shopping errands, transcribing taped interviews (one between Self and JG Ballard), brewing opium tea and taking messages from Self’s agent, publishers and commissioning editors at newspapers. The job constitutes a lucky break since the alternative for De Abaitua is returning to the north to pick up his old job as a security guard on the Liverpool docks.

I felt lucky myself in reading this memoir; the reader seems to eavesdrop in effect on conversations between Self and De Abaitua on lofty literary matters, about modernism, the morality of style. Fascinating stuff. All the while, De Abaitua casts around for subject matter as a springboard for his own writing, though he worries that as a young man he hasn’t lived long enough to make a decent stab at writing fiction: “Beginnings are all you know”. The memoir suggests to me that De Abaitua had plenty of material to mine from his own tough teenage years, but I expect he needed a bit of distance, two decades of distance, to make sense of it all.

He takes a tentative step forward by asking his friend Nelson to taperecord conversations at the bar where he works. De Abaitua transcribes these tapes in his spare time in Suffolk hoping, trusting, that he’ll find inspiration from this collection of incoherent fragments. He recognises that incoherence is truthful.

Stories have a beginning, middle and end. Life is mostly middle.

With my past life as a visual artist, I’m especially intrigued that while De Abaitua is holed up in Suffolk his ideas for fiction projects seem akin to conceptual art projects. Nelson’s tape recordings of bar conversations prompt De Abaitua to consider writing a story about a collector of such tapes called William Mooch.

Mooch can source, for the right price, a recording of any conversation a client requests; the pillow talk of the rich and powerful, the itemised guilt of the confession booth, and all the things they say about you behind your back.

I’m reminded of Tom McCarthy’s surrealist novel Remainder (one of my all-time favourite novels), and Don DeLillo’s Zero K (one of my favourite reads last year) in which the novel’s settings convey the atmosphere of art installations.

Adding to this surrealist bent, Will Self suggests to De Abaitua that, as an exercise in attentiveness, he should attempt to give physical form to an object he sees in a dream. De Abaitua takes the advice. In one dream, he stands by the white dome of Sizewell nuclear reactor and he holds a black frying pan with the shape of a crescent moon cut into the pan’s base. An irridescent glow fills the crescent. With this image in mind, he tries to commission a Suffolk ironmonger to recreate his dream vision by cutting out a crescent shape in a pan. But sadly the plan doesn’t pan out (sorry!) The ironmonger chases him off the premises. In a change of tack, De Abaitua considers recreating moments from his dreams as short films.

Ambition, rites of passage and the various measures of success (and failure) are themes throughout this generous and honest memoir. De Abaitua muses, towards the memoir’s end, that employing an amanuensis might itself be a measure of a writer’s success.

By the way, De Abaitua did eventually use the bar room conversations as a starting point—for a short story “Inbetween”, published in the best-selling anthology of rave fiction, Disco Biscuits. He now has three novels to his name and his debut novel Red Men was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008.

Self & I (Eye Books) by Matthew De Abaitua will be published late March 2018.

Other reading this year

I decided to read a few more novels published in 2017/18 that are vying for shortlists this year and next:

Euphoria by Hinz Heller (translated by Kári Driscoll)—a short and brutal post-apocalyptic novel with a strong concept—four blokes emerge from a weekend reunion in a ski chalet to find a devastated world.

Paris Adrift: I read a pre-publication copy of E.J. Swift’s wonderful novel centred on bohemian life in contemporary Paris, neatly slipstreamed with a time-travel story. This is political speculative fiction at its best, beautifully written. Swift’s characters are absolutely believable as young drifters and dreamers, part of a Parisian sub-culture of low-wage bar workers. I can see this book transferring brilliantly to the screen!

America City by Chris Beckett. This is another example of political SF, set in a future US when politicians face the problem of major internal migrations from storm-lashing on the east coast and desertification in the south. This story stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker, a compelling experimental novel, a fragmented dystopian story, which won the Goldsmith Prize in 2017.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a contemporary story of refugees seeking a safe place to live, with a fantastical story device allowing people to flee from one continent to another through magical doors.

Happy reading, everyone!

BSFA 2017 Awards: Dreams Before the Start of Time and The Enclave reach shortlists

I’m so delighted, a tad overwhelmed, that Dreams Before the Start of Time (47North) is short listed for the British Science Fiction Association 2017 Award for Best Novel, and my novella The Enclave (NewCon Press) is short listed for the BSFA’s 2017 Award for Short Fiction. Here’s a link to the full announcement.


Congratulations to all the other shortlisted writers and artists, and thank you to all the lovely BSFA members who read my books and voted in the second round of the awards process.

I’ve already read Nina Allan’s The Rift and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and I’m thrilled to be on a shortlist with such wonderful novels! I’m adding all the other books and stories to the top of my reading pile, right now. Why not read some of the shortlisted works and make your own guess at who will gain the most votes in the final round? The award winners will be announced at Eastercon in Harrogate on Saturday 31st March.

And how wonderful to see Marcin Wolski  shortlisted for the cover artwork of 2084 Anthology (Unsung Stories).

Here are the full short lists:


Best Novel

Nina Allan – The Rift (Titan Books)

Anne Charnock – Dreams Before the Start of Time (47North)

Mohsin Hamid – Exit West (Hamish Hamilton)

Ann Leckie – Provenance (Orbit)

Best Shorter Fiction

Anne Charnock – The Enclave (NewCon Press)

Elaine Cuyegkeng – These Constellations Will Be Yours (Strange Horizons)

Greg Egan – Uncanny Valley (

Geoff Nelder – Angular Size (in ‘SFerics 2017’ edited by Roz Clarke and Rosie Oliver, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform)

Tade Thompson – The Murders of Molly Southbourne ( Read more

I’ve moved to a house with no bookshelves

Some of you will have gleaned from my social media posts that I ended 2017 with a dramatic change on the home front. Garry and I moved house from Chester, moving not simply across town or to a neighbouring county, but to Scotland. To be precise we’re now living in Port Bannatyne on the Isle of Bute. It’s not as remote as you might imagine since the island has excellent connections to Glasgow. I’m thrilled and excited to be here and I’m keeping my fingers crossed this will prove to be an inspired relocation.

My first priority is to unpack my books, but there isn’t a single bookshelf in our new home. So I’m looking for design inspiration. And where better to look that the local gothic pile, Mount Stuart, which has four libraries! Pictured here is the Purple Library, so called for the colour of the marble pillars. Somehow, I think my ‘library’ will be relatively minimal in architectural terms, but my book spines will be way more colourful! Read more

Interview at BSFA November meeting. Free and all welcome.

I’m back from an autumn road trip in our campervan, this time to Croatia, where Garry and I caught the last of the season’s fine weather. So I’m feeling re-energised for a house move (more of that another time) and for an interview at the British Science Fiction Association’s November meeting.

If you’re in London on Wednesday 22nd November please come along! I’ll be interviewed about my latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, and other matters no doubt, by the wonderful Glyn Morgan. Glyn recently completed his PhD in English Literature and I’m looking forward to a great conversation.

Wednesday, November 22,  2017, 7pm
Glyn Morgan interviews Anne Charnock
Artillery Arms (upstairs private bar) 102 Bunhill Row (corner of Dufferin St)  London EC1Y 8ND.

(You don’t need to be a member of BSFA to come along to these monthly meetings!)
Nearest Tube: Old St – exit 3

More info here.

And if you ever visit the Island of Krk in Croatia, you should make a beeline for the Church of St Lucy in Jurandvor to see the Glagolitic inscriptions, dating back to around 1100. A real highlight of the trip for me.

Launch Event for 2084 Anthology — Inspired by Orwell

Following a hugely successful Kickstarter by publisher Unsung Stories — thanks to all of you who pledged — the 2084 anthology , edited by George Sandison, is now published. I’ll be part of the launch event next Tuesday (3 October) in London, so if you’re in the neighbourhood please drop by!

Early reviews, I’m bound to say, are pretty glowing.

Unsung Stories is teaming up with the Post Apocalyptic Book Club to host this special panel event as part of the club’s Dark Societies series.

Leila Abu el Hawa will discuss these 15 dystopian short stories, inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, with contributing authors Malcolm Devlin, Aliya Whiteley, Anne Charnock, Lavie Tidhar, E.J. Swift.

Full list of contributors in no particular order: Jeff Noon, Christopher Priest, E. J. Swift, Courttia Newland, James Smythe, Lavie Tidhar, Aliya Whiteley, David Hutchinson, Cassandra Khaw, Irenosen Okojie, Desirina Boskovich, Ian Hocking, Malcolm Devlin, Oliver Langmead and Anne Charnock.

I’m delighted to be in such fine company!

The Star of Kings, 126 York Way London, Greater London N1 0AX
Tuesday, 3 October, 19:00
Copies of the book including super-smart hardbacks will be on sale at the event.

How Writers Write

My thanks to author Tony Ballantyne, for inviting me to his lovely blog to add to his series on How Writers Write. I’ve done my best in this post to be open about my writing process, but I suspect I’ve revealed a little too much about my love of spreadsheets.
Nevertheless, it was fun to write and I’ve enjoyed reading the other posts in this series. I hope you do too!

Time to Cut the Cord with the Stone Age: my essay on The F-Word

The UK contemporary feminist website The F-Word has published my essay today: Time to Cut the Cord with the Stone Age.

I’m really delighted to raise the issues of future reproductive technologies in this forum. This is the subject matter I delve into in my latest 47North novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time.

So timely too. It’s now official in Nature – news was circulating last week – that scientists in the US have successfully used CRISPR gene editing on human embryos to delete the gene for a heritable heart condition. All experimental at this stage, but bound to be highly controversial.

No doubt this major advance will be discussed next week at my panel at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki: Human Reproduction in Science Fiction. See my events page.

And now I really must pack my bags for Nine Worlds and Worldcon 75! Hope to see some of you there.

The Rift by Nina Allan

Nina Allan’s astonishing novel The Rift came to mind last weekend, and not simply because of its imminent release. (I was fortunate to read this novel pre-publication and it is published today by Titan). It came to mind as I arrived home from my cycling holiday on the west coast of Scotland. I felt as though I’d slipped through a rift of sorts myself, from a parallel universe of spectacular scenery, of quiet roads and CalMac ferries, of clean air, seals and sea otters, where the intensity of the real world seemed unfathomably distant.

The Rift centres on the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Julie and her reappearance twenty years later to the astonishment of her sister Selena and her mother. Where has Julie been? Does she dare to tell them?

The novel starts out as a compelling contemporary mystery and morphs into speculative territory via a rift, it seems, in the fabric of space. Allan prepares the reader for this with subtlety. For example, there’s passing reference to her father’s interest in alien abduction testimonies. It’s also neatly presaged by Selena and Julie’s teenage in-joke about aliens.

Indeed, Allan foreshadows the alien worlds of Tristane and Dea: “Selena tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a world where everything was the same as it was in reality with one exception.” I knew something fantastical was going to happen when I read that! Read more

Mountainfilm, The New Normal, and 21 kids sue Federal Government over climate change

It was such a thrill being invited to Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado. Now that I’ve recovered from jet lag — made worse by an all-night vigil watching the UK election results coming in — I’d like to tell you about the high points of Mountainfilm, which include meeting an eleven-year-old girl from Oregon who is taking on the US Federal Government.

What, you ask, was I even doing at the festival? Well, I went to Mountainfilm with my husband Garry to talk about climate change — specifically about how our community of Ashton Hayes has spent 11 years cutting our carbon emissions. Garry gave a well-received and positive talk at the festival’s Symposium and over the course of the week we spoke with local residents, non-profit organisations and media about Telluride’s own plans for achieving carbon neutrality. The two points about the Ashton Hayes project that struck everyone at Mountainfilm were these: One, we don’t ever invite politicians to address our meetings. Two, we don’t argue with anyone. Several New Yorkers were pretty aghast; they couldn’t imagine not arguing.

Attorney Julia Olson with her client Avery McRae at Mountainfilm Symposium.

So, the major highlight for me… was meeting eleven-year-old Avery McRae who is the second youngest of 21 plaintiffs (all under the age of 20) suing the federal government for ignoring early warnings over climate change and endangering their health by continuing to burn fossil fuels. Avery was accompanied by her dad, a climate scientist, and lead attorney in the case, Julia Olson.

Juliana et al v. United States et al is working its way through the courts, so watch out in the news media for this fascinating and potentially game-changing legal action.

I was immensely impressed by Avery’s clear thinking and hard talking. It made me wonder if every politician ought to have an eleven-year-old at their elbow, watching every piece of proposed legislation crossing their desk. I’m sure Avery would ask: “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Is that really fair to us kids?” Read more

Interview at BSFA/SFF Annual Meeting, and a Conversation with Author Irenosen Okojie

Two brief updates that I’m really chuffed to share with you.

I’m really honoured that I’ll be a special guest of the British Science Fiction Association at their AGM and mini-convention on 17th June at Imperial College, London. Author Stephanie Saulter will be the special guest of the Science Fiction Foundation. The day’s mini-convention events – interviews and a panel discussion – are open to all. Tempted to come along? Here’s the latest information.

Irenosen Okojie, winner of a Betty Trask Award.

The Ada Lovelace Conversation #3 — Irenosen Okojie

As the Arthur C. Clarke Award’s  ‘interviewer in residence’ — what a great title! — I took the opportunity to chat with author Irenosen Okojie about her wonderful short story collection, Speak Gigantular. We discuss our varying approaches to fiction writing and where we find playfulness in the process.

This exchange proved to be a brilliant learning experience. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did! Read the Ada Lovelace Conversation #3 with Irenosen Okojie here.

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The perfect reader responses, latest reviews and a Korean translation

“Your books always break my heart. You’re like a really bad boyfriend. I know you’re going to leave me emotionally wrecked, but I can’t stay away :-)”

How sweet! I like the smiley face, too. This particular message appeared in my inbox last week. I shall frame it!

Over on Twitter yesterday, top marks to reader Mark Gerrits for selecting four great images for his tweet:

And what are ‘the critics’ saying? I’m bowled over that two reviewers, in particular, found time to review Dreams Before the Start of Time (47North) last week, seeing as they’re Shadow Jurors for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award. I’m referring to Megan AM (From Couch to Moon website) and Nina Allan (The Spider’s House website). They’re part of a team of nine critics who are currently reviewing science fiction novels released in 2016 and drawing up a Shadow Shortlist which they will reveal on 2 May—one day before the official Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist is announced. Exciting stuff.

I blush as I copy and paste Nina Allan’s comments:

“I greatly admire this book. I love the music it makes when listened to in consort with its equally accomplished predecessor. Most of all, I’m delighted and inspired by Anne Charnock’s writing talent, her contemplative, forensic, insatiably curious approach to speculative fiction. The three novels she has produced to date constitute a significant literary achievement in their own right, as well as being the springboard from which – I feel sure of it – Charnock will leap towards still more confident advances in the novels to come.”

No pressure, then. Read the full review here.

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