Empathy for Evil

Back toward the beginning of March, my friend, Adam Getty wrote a really interesting post about The Creeper. You can read it here. I’m going to try and avoid mangling what he meant, but essentially it came down to this (Adam will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong):

  • Write what you know is fundamentally good advice.
  • Sometimes you write about horrible things or from the perspective of horrible people.
  • Each of us has a “creeper”, a little voice in the back of our mind capable of thinking horrible things. We keep it locked down and hidden away. But occasionally, when you need to write horrible things, you need to release the Creeper to make it feel real. To give the horrible things an authenticity.
  • This can be problematic because when people read your stories, they think you must think like that. People must wonder if George R.R. Martin is a bit messed up considering how much he writes about incest, rape and butchery.

It’s a really good, thought-provoking read. I also kind of disagree with it. I’m not sure I quite buy into the “Creeper” theory, while still agreeing with 3/4 of those bullet points above.

Writing what you know is great advice. If you know something, you can write about it better than blindly groping in the dark. If it’s a thing, some game or setting, you can write with passion and make it come alive. If it’s a feeling, you can write about it in more detail and make it seem more real to the reader. But I think write what you know is like “show, don’t tell”. It’s the training wheels of writing advice.

The next level up is empathy. You need to be so connected with your characters, so drawn into what is happening to them, that you can experience feelings that you may never have felt before. Write what you know becomes write what you can properly imagine.

I’m a speculative fiction writer, on the whole. However, a couple of years ago I wrote one of these middle-class, middle-aged relationship literary stories. I added a certain amount of humour to make it interesting to myself. My father rather liked it. However, he was amazed that I was able to capture the main character’s thoughts so well. Something along the lines of: “you’re 22, how do you even know how to explain all these thoughts?”

I paused. A moment of silence as my eyebrows creased together. “I mean, uh, I imagined it. You know I write about wizards a lot of the time while not, in fact, being a wizard.”

It’s true, I’ve never really experienced the final moments of a creaking relationship (they tended to break either before that stage, or fortunately as of now, the relationship hasn’t creaked at all). I don’t know what middle-aged people think as they’re confronted with a certain ennui. But I was able to imagine that. I was able to empathise with my characters, try to get inside their head, try to think what that would feel like.

But what if you’re not writing about wizards or broken relationships? What if you’re writing about evil. I’m going to Godwin this in a big way, so bear with me. Maybe avoid taking a sip of water. I think to be a good writer you have to try and be able to empathise with Hitler. Or Stalin. Or a serial killer. Before I end up on some sort of register, I note there’s a clear distinction between sympathy and empathy. I think we can all agree on the statement of expression: Fuck Hitler. Fuck that guy. He’s a dick. However, I do think you have to be in a position to try and understand his mind. Imagine what he was thinking. Only then could you convincingly write a story involving him.

Let’s draw this away from Hitler and back to Adam’s Creeper, though. I don’t think there’s a Creeper inside my head that I use to write evil. I don’t think, somewhere, there’s a little voice that adequately reflect the thoughts of, say, the Joker. However, I do think you have to try and empathise with him. You have to try and get inside the Joker’s head. In many ways, you need to try and become the Joker. Just for a few minutes.

And that is just as horrifying as the Creeper. It’s a recognition that you’re capable of understanding a killer or a wife-beater or a psychopath or a financial crook. It means you can put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they’re thinking. It’s a dark place but I think it’s a place necessary to go to. Unless, I suppose, you write really light fluffy stuff? Then, uh, congratulations.

Either way, Creeper or empathy for Hitler, putting your writing into the world is a terrifying thing to do. I think we’re losing the ability to differentiate between the Author and the Character. My characters can think and say horrible things. It doesn’t mean I agree with it. Sometimes, though, you run the risk of the reader not understanding that.

And that’s scarier than any creeper could ever be.



I turned 24 yesterday.

In that time, I did not become an acclaimed writer that millions of people read. Which hardly seems the type of thing a 24 year old should be doing and yet I still have to remind myself that it’s okay I’m still crafting my trade.

As a society, we seem obsessed with the next “hot young thing”. No matter what field we’re talking about, a youngster punching above their weight is given attention. Magazines dedicate lists to: the Most 20 Influential People Under 20, 25 Powerful Figures Under 25, The 30 Best Authors under 30. It’s hard to escape, and you can struggle to keep perspective.

I’ve been writing for a long time and telling stories for even longer. With every passing year, they’ll be a moment where I panic. I’m no good. I’ve been doing this for years. This is clearly something I’m not meant to do. I’m already 24. How ridiculous that last sentence is.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first short story when he was 20. Sherlock Holmes didn’t come along till he was 27. I am afraid, Sir Arthur, that you missed the cut to be powerful before 25.

Neil Gaiman’s first story appeared in print when he was 23. Sandman didn’t turn up until he was 28 and his first novel didn’t arrive until he was already 30. You would never have made that Best Authors Under 30 list, Neil.

Nick Harkaway’s debut novel didn’t come out until he was 36 years old. Susanna Clarke was 37 years old before she even had a short story published. Ann Leckie’s first short story didn’t appear until she was 40 years old. While there are exceptions, most authors are not being published and writing their best work until their late 30s at the earliest.

This is what I have to keep reminding myself. A writer doesn’t spring from the ground fully formed. There is an apprenticeship to be served. I have many years in front of me to find the right stories to tell, to use the right words to tell them.

I have time.

I have perspective.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby – one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots – might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about.

– The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

An elderly couple goes in search of their son in Anglo-Saxon England. King Arthur is recently dead and ogres, pixies, and a dragon prowls the landscape. A mist clings to the hills which seems to rob people of their memories.

When I finished this book last year, for the next fortnight it was all I could really think about. It’s not without its flaw, but the fact that I see people write this off as Ishiguro’s weakest work is surprising. This is a beautiful book, toying with memory and identity as much as it plays with the intersection between genre and literary fiction.

It really, really is an acquired taste. So if you want to read it, maybe try the first couple of chapters before you buy. The prose is written in an unusual way and the characters all speak with overly elaborate, formal stiff Middle English.

If you can get behind the style, though, it’s an enchanting, beautiful and haunting book. A lot of people thinks the pay-off is only from the elderly couple, that the book only works as literary fiction and not as a genre story. The relationship of Axl and Beatrice is the beating heart of the novel. No one can argue against that. Their relationship, an elderly couple still so much in love, is incredibly affecting and if you don’t buy into them then the ending has no power.

However, I enjoyed the more fantastical elements as well. I don’t think they were neglected too much for the sake of allegory, though this is a very allegorical book. There’s one particular scene where an Anglo-Saxon warrior explains how a tower was used to defend a position. I actually have no idea if that explanation comes from a historical basis, but it doesn’t matter because I was just utterly drawn into it. It is easily as good as any description of a siege in a more traditional fantasy novel.

There’s been much said about where this book lies in the genre vs literary fiction debate. Ishiguro, himself, has said he is on the side of the dragons and ogres. I’ll discuss my own thoughts about the importance of speculative fiction and the need for it to be confident in a more dedicated post. However, I think Ishiguro is doing something I’d like to see more people try. To tell important stories through the lens of the fantastical. This is a fantasy book. This is middle-brow literary fiction. The two do not always have to be distinct.

If you need any more proof that this book deals in the speculative side of things, it’s Ishiguro’s command over the power of mystery. This book utilises it brilliantly. If you can throw in a good mystery, something for the reader to solve, then everything is just a little bit better. The reader is more engaged. The fact that no one can really remember anything in this book means you’re constantly just trying to piece things together. It’s not the most convoluted thing to work out, but it’s engaging.

One thing I want as a guiding principle with these early book reviews is to pick books that I think deserve more attention: We, the Drowned, anything that Nick Harkaway will ever write, and now this. Ishiguro has written other, better loved books. I’ve read Never Let Me Go and enjoyed it. But to me, The Buried Giant is a haunting, beautiful fairy tale that is just misunderstood.

Johnny’s an American (Rowling Controversy #2 of 2)

There’s another post, entitled R.E.S.P.E.C.T, about the issue of the Native American segment of Rowling’s American magical history. This is about the rest of the complaints about her writing. These complaints are amusing me greatly.

The first comment actually predates Rowling’s updates. A writer on io9 remarked something along the lines of: “I really hope the film isn’t going to be about the wise Englishman coming to save the backwards, provincial colonists.”

The rest has been about people complaining about how Rowling adapted American history. How could Salem really have such an effect on immigration? How does the MCUSA exist before the USA? Why would New York be the home of MCUSA? Why are Puritans such a focus in the history when most of the colonialists were not Puritans at all?

All of these are incredibly valid points. Rowling should have thought about them properly and her world is worse for not doing so. And yet I find these complaints completely hilarious.

Because this is what Americans do to everybody else’s history time after time. We have had films and books that literally reinvent history to fit Americans into it. The role of Commonwealth embassies in the Iranian hostage crisis? Changed for the worse to make America look more alone and heroic. In U-571, Americans captured an Engima coding device. Except, in reality, British and Canadian sailors captured them and the USA hadn’t even entered the war yet. Rewriting history, or not paying proper attention to it, is something Americans do all the time in books and films. The Americans riding in at the last moment to save everyone is basically a cliche.

So the fact that Americans are upset that an Englishman might be portrayed as the hero, or that their history isn’t being properly depicted, is just terrifying. Because now we don’t have to be scared of Americans changing our history to make them look better. We also have to be scared of them complaining if we do the same to them.

Or, in other words:

I’m Afraid of Americans

R.E.S.P.E.C.T (Rowling Controversy #1 of 2)

Disclaimer: This is going to be a white, British guy talking about issues that other people are going to be way more qualified to talk about. Try and find those voices and consider what they’re saying.

So I’m going to write two quick blog posts on the J.K Rowling controversy about her American magical history she’s been writing. This is the serious post. The other is going to be more bemusement.

The most stinging criticism of Rowling has been her portrayal of Native Americans in her magical history. To be honest, I think a lot of it is warranted, but not always in the way it’s being framed.

There are some people who are saying Rowling shouldn’t have written about Native Americans at all. That she is culturally appropriating myths and legends for her own commercial benefit. I see the argument here. And I’m well aware that I’m British, where my culture and traditions have partly been going around and squashing these cultures. I have a position of privilege. But I don’t think it’s a good road for us to follow. I don’t think saying to writers, “you can only write about your own culture” is a good place.

There are multiple reasons for this. It makes the literary world more insular. It brings no new insights. It doesn’t give a reason for a writer to challenge themselves. Further, with the publishing industry being predominantly white, it will mean we’ll just see more Eurocentric stories. How many culturally diverse writers have been told, “this type of fantasy doesn’t sell, could you write something a little more European?” We need to expand speculative fiction’s palettes. Most of that should be bringing in new diverse voices. But some of that should also come from more people taking inspiration from outside their culture.

So I don’t think Rowling did anything wrong by writing about Native Americans.

However, if you’re going to write about another culture, particularly one that has been oppressed, then you need to be respectful. I don’t think Rowling was. That’s not to say she meant it in a malicious way. She was just disrespectful out of ignorance.

First, the use of “Native Americans” in general. North America was a diverse place before colonialists arrived. And labels are important. Scots get upset if you call them English. South Americans are annoyed that “America” is shorthand for the USA. Is it surprising or thin-skinned that, for example, Cherokee people are going “what do you mean Native American? That’s a Najavo myth. It’s not mine”? No.

Secondly, how Rowling played with the “skin-walker” legend. For those unaware, she turned the evil skin-walkers into a misunderstood victim of hate. This is really problematic for two reasons. It’s not being very respectful to the culture she is taking inspiration from, essentially saying “you got this the wrong way round”. But also, people still believe in “skin-walkers”.

In university, I had an eye opening moment. A Maori professor, incredibly intelligent and well-respected, was asked by a smart arse if he believed in curses. This professor, without hesitation, said yes. He still believed in the power of curses. He still believes in the spiritual protector, the Taniwha. When a writer is using these myths for inspiration, they have to remember that for a lot of indigenous cultures, they are dealing with truths. It’s not like dragons and pixies in Europe. People believe in these things.

And if you want to take inspiration from them, and I think you should, then you have to be respectful about it. Also, if people don’t like what you’ve said, you need to take this feedback on board and work with it. You don’t get to decide when you’ve offended another person.

The Haunting of the Author #1

As I’ve promised, I’ve added another bit of work to my ‘Free Writing’ page. You can read We Need to Talk About Susan here. I strongly suggest reading it before coming back to this post! We’re going to get down and dirty in its entrails.

Back? Hopefully you enjoyed the poem? Now, onward.

Ronald Barthes once wrote an essay called The Death of the Author. It’s one of these critical essays, that many people might claim to have read, but secretly have just gone to the Wikipedia page. I will frankly admit to falling somewhere between that. I’ve never read the original essay, but I know a little more about the premise than a cursory Wikipedia glance. This midway point is also, funnily enough, exactly how I feel about the essay itself; I’m at a place somewhere between agreement and total disagreement.

The central premise of Barthes’s essay is that upon finishing their work, the author dies. They produce, but they do not explain. It is for the reader to take meaning away from a story. The writer should not tell people what the meaning is. Further, the reader shouldn’t look to the writer’s background to try and figure out what the work is about.

I have a weakness for the argument, because I don’t think a writer should explain what they mean. That’s what the story is for in the first place. However, I also find Barthes’s argument entirely silly. The writer and their background is important to how the story came about. Can you ever divorce the story from the writer? I’m not so sure.

Regardless, I’m always hesitant to explain my stories. On the other hand, it can be extremely fun. And so, occasionally, when I post or publish a story, I may “haunt” you here and discuss what I was thinking at the time. Ronald Barthes suggests you don’t click through.  Continue reading “The Haunting of the Author #1”

The Year Ahead

This year, I had great plans. I was going to write a play before April (for the Playwright b4 25 competition) and I planned to have another crack at a novel. I was going to look at novelettes and self-publishing.

Then I decided to do my Masters of Law. Therefore, on top of working full time as a Judge’s Clerk, I am also now writing a 36,000 word Law Thesis and a 7,500 word History Dissertation.

This, perhaps, wasn’t my greatest idea. However, with a scholarship behind my sails and a job suited to doing a Masters as well, the decision seemed like a now or never type moment. It’s not very romantic, but I have to plan for life on the assumption that I won’t make a living from writing. A masters opens door that my LLB simply doesn’t.

I’m telling myself that if things do get dramatically busy, it’s only for one year. I can survive. However, something I am concerned over is writing-time for fiction. I’ve felt, over the last few months, that I’ve really turned a corner. That I’m writing good things. If I drop writing for an entire year, what might happen?

They say you never forget how to ride a bike. Bikes and Hamilton do not get along so I can’t confirm that. What I did do a lot of when I was younger was play cricket. And I mean a lot. At one point in my teens, I was playing or training six days a week. This was a long time ago now, though. I haven’t played a competitive game of cricket in at least six years. Now, I can still roll my arm over. I still bowl some beauties. But most of the time, the ball is a little too short. A bit too slow. A tad too wide. I can still play cricket, but I’m not as good as I once was.

There’s a very real fear that if I walk away from writing for a year, I might come back and find that all the progress I’ve made has disappeared. So here’s my promise to myself (recorded on the internet so people can judge me if I fail):

I’m going to keep writing. 10,000 words a month of fiction (and if my Masters is getting really tough, I’ll include blogging as well. I’m only human). I’m going to concentrate on short stories. Things I can pick up and put down easily. Stories that I can finish quickly and feel a sense of completion.

Essentially, 2016 is the year where I use short stories to stay “match fit”. Let’s see how that goes.