Wednesday, 29 January 2014

True Adventures of a Part Time Writer. The Sea of Galilee.

I sat here, at this table, in a state of slight disbelief. In the distance was the Sea of Galilee, the town I was in was Roman, and the restaurant had been built in a beautiful black and yellow stone Ottoman mansion.

Where was I?

The view south from the restaurant is like this, five miles of Roman temples, theatres, stores, and baths. In the bright November sun (yes, November) lizards sunbathed on blocks of stone, then sprinted away if you came too near, legs lifted high on each side.

The place is called Um Qais. It's in northern Jordan, the slice of pale water in the distance is the Sea of Galilee, now in Israel. The nearer hills are in Syria and Palestine, and the valley is that of the river Jordan.

The Roman town was called Gadara, most of it is now buried beneath olive groves, but it was once part of the Decapolis, the network of cities that ruled the area. It is the site of a biblical story about a herd of swine being chased into the water. When I was there it was also the site of an owl trying to sleep in a tree and a flock of sparrows determined not to let it.

The Ottoman village dates to when the Turks were in charge, but they left long ago, when their empire fell in upon itself. Local farmers took it over, but they too have gone.

The restaurant serves beautiful lamb stews, to the sound of haunting Lebanese guitar music. The day I was there, though, there were two other noises. The first was a weird trilling, like distant birds. I looked everywhere for them, until I spotted them high over head. Arrow head formations of broad winged, long legged cranes, migrating from the Russian Steppe to Africa for the winter.

The other noise was more distant, and more sinister. The muffled thump of artillery in Syria. Damascus is only just beyond the first range of hills, the infamous Golan heights. The whole area is scarred by millennia of wars. In the springtime the hillside is a riot of wildflowers, and filled with exiled Palestinians who throng there to see where they once lived.

There are stories everywhere, and some places few of them are happy. All we strive for is an end to this one, and as soon as possible.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Who I see when I think of a story, Aisling Loftus, Mr. Selfridge, Levels 4, Idylls of Merlin.

Aisling Loftus (pronounced Ashling), to me, is one of the greatest actresses of her generation (it's the younger generation, so far there's not a ton of competition).

I'm editing Levels 4 now (it doubles as Book One in the Idylls of Merlin) and there's one character, Madeleine Bride, who's becoming very complicated indeed. For three books she's been the POV character (except for a brief meltdown in Lullaby of Lies, when she wasn't strong enough to carry the story).

Now, though, she's one of an ensemble, and for much of the story - particularly the start, she's not even the lead. She has to play a mature, balancing role, when new players are charging in and making a mess of things. Aisling Loftus does complexity, balance, and imbalance with ease.

She also does swimming costumes, which is important. Anybody who knows Levels, knows that Madeleine has a love-hate relationship with her swimsuit. She doesn't swim as much as usual in The Walled Lake, because she needs to organise the future saviour of the world, but Aisling Loftus could do that too.

The main reason why Aisling Loftus would be a great Madeleine Bride is that she does an amazing job of hinting at vast inner resource. She can act surface fragility AND inner strength at the same time. I know this because I've been watching her in Mr. Selfridge. It's a great series, and she's the best thing in it. I haven't included a clip of it here, though, because her hair is all wrong. 1908 hair is splendid but it's not very Levels at all.

In Mr. Selfridge she's the naive, starting at the bottom shop girl who turns out - surprise! - to be graced with vast talent and oodles of charm.

Watch it! You can get DVDs for one dinar each in a shop near my place...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Ukraine 2014: Massive Dramatic Story, Good against Evil, Giant Super Hero takes on Grotesque Villain.

The bright colours and sunny pictures of my friends facebook profile pictures are disappearing. They are being eaten up and replaced, one by one, with this.

Nothing. Mourning. The long dark night before the dawn. My friends are Ukrainians, or people who, like me, have lived in Ukraine.

You didn't know that, did you?

I lived in Ukraine for three years. It's where I had my first proper job (the company sent somebody to the airport with a SIGN to pick me up). I had the first apartment all to myself (the windows were taped shut, and the water out the tap was hot enough to make coffee with). My first real relationship was in Kyiv. Ukraine is an awesome country. It is the biggest nation entirely within Europe. The people are spectacular. They party with a joy that is rarely seen, though their history is astonishingly harsh. One after another powerful neighbours have rampaged across their great expanses of undefendable, beautiful grassland. In the 1930s the Soviet Union engineered slaughter by starvation that saw corpses piled in the streets. 

Then there was Chernobyl.

It is that history, which gives authenticity to the other things that are so great about Ukraine. In the west are the mountains and forests of the Carpathians, haunted by wolves and bears. Lviv is an ancient city with hundreds-of-years old churches from a dozen different forms of Christianity, some of them rare, and tiny, and hailing from far away. 

In the east the steppes roll away towards the Caspian sea, much as they did when Cossacks galloped across them.

Kyiv, the capital, is a beautiful city, rolling over seven hills, from river beaches... mysterious wooded graveyards that feel they are the edge of a 1000 acre forest. 

There are markets heaped with fruit, and a metro so deep the escalator takes 10 minutes to ride. In the winter it can be 20 below, in the summer people cram into beautiful parks, late into the evening. 

And now it is racked and ruined. You might have seen. I won’t go into the politics. You can find that elsewhere. All I want to say is that this is a beautiful, European capital, where young people are fighting for their futures.

Fortunately they’ve got this guy on their side, and he’s used to fighting. This is a time for heroes, and it may be that Ukraine has one.

The Black Square on people’s Facebook page was also the signature artwork of Kazimir Malevich, one of the founders of modern art, who was… drumroll… Ukrainian.

Not many people know that, much as they know little about Ukraine in general. It’s worth finding out, though. Much of this blog is about how YA paranormal and fantasy is not really that fantastic, because real life - if you are adventurous and look hard - is much more extraordinary. (examples here, herehere, and here) It is the fantastic things I have experienced in places like Ukraine that have informed my writing. 

It's worth finding out about Ukraine. I did, and I never looked back.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Happy New Year King Arthur Survey!

Hello everybody. I hope you had a fabulous holiday. Mine was mainly about the food, and a bit about Transylvania... I'll write more about it as soon as I'm sufficiently recovered...

In the meantime, though, I thought I'd remind you about a fun little survey I first released 2 years ago. It's about modern perceptions of King Arthur. Have a go, it'll take you a couple of minutes, and I'll compile your responses into an article for when Levels 4 comes out...