Eloise and I share a fascination with derelict or awkward spaces. We find abandoned buildings, service stations, and other liminal spaces endlessly interesting.
So do I!
This is why we found it strange that most writers’ retreats take you away from these spaces, towards somewhere quiet, remote, and separate. The idea to start a retreat that did the opposite arose naturally from this.
We did the pilot by ourselves at Peterborough Service Area, and it was hugely inspiring. Since then TLR has grown steadily. We even managed to get Arts Council England funding for our latest project at Alton Towers.
Personally, I’m a fan of writing in limbo places. In a theatre audience before curtain-up; travelling on the Tube. There’s something inspiring about the sense of being in a between-time, displaced from your usual surroundings, adrift with just a notebook and your eager mind. They feel borrowed and somehow urgent because they won’t last long. When I discovered Liminal Residency, it made me think of that.
That’s a beautiful way of putting it. It reminds me of the Amtrak Residency – an American Residency based on a series of long-distance trains. I often make connections and untangle ideas while travelling. Something about moving through a landscape seems to lead to looser and wilder associations in my brain.
There’s something liberating about the sensation of being carried, being taken somewhere. Especially if you’re not having to drive, you’re in someone else’s hands. It’s a kind of trusting abandoned state, like sleep.
Do you write whilst on the Tube? When I lived in London I found it great for thinking… but often difficult to actually get any writing done!
I think about it. But the journeys I make aren’t long enough for a sustained write. And often, I can’t get a seat.
As means of transport go, it’s quite an intense and stressful one.
Liminal Residency is about overlooked places. Motorway service stations; Heathrow Airport; the theme park at Alton Towers. We’re probably not supposed to give much thought to them; for most people, they’re transit stops on the way to somewhere else. What are you aiming to do when you explore these places?
Part of it is simply recognising the importance of these places. However mundane or disposable they might be to most of the people who visit, they still have a history.
So much history! Think of the number of souls that pass through these places.
We think it’s as important to recognise and record and engage with this history. Why do only some places get to be historically significant? More life is lived in a service station than in a historic castle.
I love that.
We’re also hoping to find something different. Everything you write arises from everything you experience, and so by exploring different places and seeing different things we hope that something new – something which wouldn’t otherwise have arisen – might come to the surface.
You seem to pick urban places, and a particular kind of urban place – they’re sealed off, almost like kingdoms.
That’s a good way of putting it – for Alton Towers in particular, which feels to me like a small city; a place with different districts, different zones. A world comprised of several other smaller worlds. And definitely a kingdom. After all, it has a castle in the middle. Have you ever been to Alton Towers?
I’ve been several times. I first went as a kid, before the theme park was installed. There was a ruined house and a garden. My parents were interested in the gardens. I only had eyes for the soot-blackened walls, the empty window holes, the sense of collapsed grandeur. I was miffed that we didn’t explore that, but had to look at flowers and greenhouses. I wanted to see the traces of the life that were lived there, the fireplaces half-way up the walls, the panelling in the rooms, to imagine the people who walked on the floors that had now fallen in. I was very young but it made a powerful impression. Derelict country houses feature strongly in my work – in my novel Lifeform Three and my travel memoir Not Quite Lost.
I’m always fascinated by the different stories and experiences people have of it.
In your Alton Towers book, my favourite part was the Park Map Errata, where you listed features that had been forgotten. Some would have been handsome and noteworthy in their day, such as the Victorian bathing pool or the stately home ruins. Others were less so, such as the disused toilet block, but still would, when they were used, have seen heavy human traffic, stories, brief encounters. Their empty state seems so elegaic and resonant. I’m not sure I have a question about this, I simply liked that you documented them!
The derelict toilet block is almost mythic to me. I worked at the park for several seasons and thought that I knew it well. I imagine that guests who go to the park every year believe that they know Alton Towers well too – to discover that there are abandoned portions of it lurking just out of sight is as exciting as finding a sealed room or a forgotten city… even if it is just a toilet block in the end!
‘As exciting as a sealed room or forgotten city…’ That’s exactly how I feel. It’s the sense that everything can change. As if time is a curtain. Pull back ten years and a place is lively and thriving; an essential hub. Close those ten years and nothing is there but brambles.
I also feel as though things become invested with a kind of importance by being neglected. The gardens and the Towers are vital, if only because so few people care about them. They are, in a sense, an endangered species of place – something that to me makes them compelling and urgent.
Let’s talk practicalities. Do you run into problems with security on these premises or do you make special arrangements? I’m thinking particularly of Heathrow Airport, where you walked the perimeter and got lost in the internal transport network. How did you get access?
We always try to make arrangements and let the places we’ll be visiting know what we’re doing. This usually doesn’t work. Heathrow, for example, is such a vast place – a collection of a thousand different interlocking organisations. Unless you have exactly the right contact, a lot of money, or a lot of good will, it’s near enough impossible to get permission to do anything. Which isn’t, of course, a reason not to do something.
We had a little luck with Alton Towers – and hopefully as we grow people might start returning our emails. You never know; we’d love to be invited somewhere one day.
How does the residency work? Can any writer take part or do you choose participants with particular aims or attributes?
We try to be as open as possible, but having a limited budget means that we can only take along a few people to each Residency. We try to pick writers and artists who have a connection with the place… or whose work might lead to an interesting interpretation of it.
It’s also pretty important that someone is on board with the whole idea. Engaging with a place in this way is sometime uncomfortable, sometimes tiring, sometimes weird. You might not get much work done during the period of the Residency. You might end up skulking around an abandoned toilet block or going on a vision quest in a theme park. It requires, I guess, at least a bit of a sense of humour.
Or curiosity and wonder!
For each location, can you pick out a magical or unexpected highlight?
At Peterborough Service Area that would definitely be the tiny, hand-built church made of wood and corrugated metal in the field behind the service station. It was a surprise find, and strangely remote, utterly beautiful. I don’t know how many of the thousands of people who stop there each day have ever discovered it.
Alton Towers – we weren’t expecting to be able to get into the Towers themselves, but there’s a curtained off archway on the exit line from Hex, and through there we had access to the whole building. It’s gorgeous, empty and echoing, filled with balls of insulation fluff and piped-in music for the benefit of the (zero) guests who go there every day.
At Heathrow… probably the old pub on the boundary. It’s hundreds of years old, and has remained stubbornly in place despite numerous attempts to destroy it. It feels completely out of place, but it’s gorgeous; once upon a time it was a refuge from highwaymen and robbers.
I have a friend who used to work in border force at Heathrow. He’s fascinated by the echoes of ancient places and has a collection of news cuttings about the villages that pre-dated the airport. He’s also an author, more famously known for his alternate history novels, but one of his preoccupations is liminal spaces. He wrote a haunting short story about people lost in the no-man’s land at the edge of a motorway. (In case you’re interested, search for John Whitbourn’s Binscombe Tales.)
If practicalities were no object, what would your ideal residency location be?
We’d love to do something in an abandoned building, possibly even an abandoned theme park. There are a few in the UK, including Loudon Castle and the old Camelot amusement park. Practically, it’s tricky, but it’s something that would be wonderful if it came together.
How does the residency work feed back into your own art?
Each Residency has sparked off new interests – new things that I want to write about. It’s changed the way I feel about space as well. The number one positive thing that being involved with TLR has done for me is to enhance my ability to notice things – see stuff that I wouldn’t before. Once you start you can’t stop. I have an appreciation now for hidden detail that I didn’t have before – and I constantly see that coming through in my writing.
Author life isn’t necessarily easy. Although our stresses are hardly big league – we’re not performing brain surgery or living in a war zone – we sometimes feel embattled and alone. If you’re having one of those moments, let this restore your courage.
Ebert’s fan letter is actually about all of us – the creators with a powerful inner compass. It’s a fan letter for our values. Most of us could take ‘easier’ options, whether artistically, commercially or in life as a whole, but we must do otherwise. Yes, says Ebert, there are people who appreciate this spirit. Who applaud it.
Here’s why, in 7ish highlights.
‘This is … a letter to a man whose … vision … challenges us to ask … questions not only about films but about lives … their lives…’
Our personal vision. We notice, we feel, we create.
‘I believe you have never made a film depending on … formulas…’
‘…and you want every film to be absolutely original.’
We might not even follow our own, er, formulas.
‘Without ever … having a dependable source of financing, without the attention of the … oligarchies that decide what may be filmed and shown, you have directed at least 55 films or television productions … because you have depended on your imagination instead of budgets, stars or publicity campaigns.’
Although we’re not financially naïve, we’ll do what we do regardless of whether it is commercial.
‘You have had the visions and made the films and trusted people to find them, and they have. It is safe to say you are as admired and venerated as any filmmaker alive…’
Independence leads to artistic identity, a distinctive style, and respect for our integrity.
…‘among those who have heard of you, of course…’
I admit that Herzog’s obscurity problem is not on the scale of, say, the obscurity problems that most of us have. But if we’re talking about scale, it seems Ebert regards Herzog as a tad obscure.
‘Those who do not know your work, and the work of your comrades in the independent film world, are missing experiences that might shake and inspire them.’
Making us feel a bit better about that obscurity thing.
‘You often say … the media pound the same paltry ideas into our heads … and that we need to see around the edges or over the top. When you open Encounters at the End of the World by following a marine biologist under the ice floes of the South Pole, and listening to the alien sounds of the creatures who thrive there, you show me a place on my planet I did not know about, and I am richer. You are the most curious of men. You are like the storytellers of old, returning from far lands with spellbinding tales… the world as we dream it… the deeper truth.’
That’s why we make what we make, and we take such care.
1 Be curious.
3 Don’t be afraid to develop.
4 Be independent in the most important way, with your questing, communicative spirit.
5 Find your audience gradually and genuinely, with the distinctive character of what you do.
And back to Ebert… finale
‘You and your work are unique and invaluable…. You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. You have proven it.’
Go forth and be audacious.
PS Watch the film and look for the little penguin.
I’m addicted to those pieces in Saturday newspapers where authors show us round their writing rooms. The walls for Post-Its, the arcane but essential talisman on the desk, the flop-and-read area…. even if we all know that half our work probably happens in snatched scribbles at the Tube station, or in our heads while watching a film.
Anyway, here’s my own contribution, first written for the Authors Electric blog back in 2012. I’m sure some of the piles of notes have waxed and waned, but the general geography of where everything lives is the same. Writers are creatures of habit, I guess.
My desk is an old dining table. It has been with my husband longer than I have.
He didn’t acquire it by choice. Years before I met him his mother found it by a skip. She delivered it to Dave ‘in case he’d find it useful’. He didn’t, because he didn’t need two dining tables. So he put it in the box room. Then I moved in.
I was a private scribbler, a manic creative. The box room became my study and the table my playground, with a computer and a litter of notes. Short stories, a tinkered-with novel, naive submissions. Gradually commissions happened. My prose left the house as printouts and disks and returned as proofs and then real books.
The table and I had become serious.
It was not a lovely beast. Not just because of the haloes from hot mugs, the cigarette burns and the grooves from children’s scribbles. I’ve never seen wood that looked so like Formica. I sanded and painted the top, in a paler tone of the smoky lilac on the walls. The table’s legs were neither substantial nor retro spindly. But painted black they became svelte stilettos. Dave made me bookcases, also in black.
There isn’t much else in the room. In one corner is a Nepalese cushion, to be used for reading and for plotting out books on index cards. The cushion is a hypnotic-looking mandala with red tasselled corners. (Tasteful neutrals make me cross.)
Beside the monitor is a stack of CDs, chosen to witch up characters, places and scene moods for works in progress. Pens are crammed in a box that once held Laurent Perrier champagne. Leads and USB drives live in a distractingly hip Michael Kors sunglasses case (a charity shop treasure). Something, one day, will find a home in the tiny cylindrical box inscribed with the word Pride. Papers, cards and a quill from a pheasant’s tail sit in a wooden chest – a gift from a friend who died one Christmas in a car crash.
Between these fixtures are notes. Pictures, too, of random strangers I’d cast as my characters.
At the moment there are five or six books evolving on that desk. If you took a stop-motion film you would see them multiply, spread and vanish like the seasons.
Like the narrator of My Memories of a Future Lifel I’m a martyr to RSI. If Dave has to sort out a problem with my computer he curses the kneeling chair, the joystick mouse and the gusseted ergonomic keyboard.
The computers have come and gone. Relics gather, CDs and notes arrive and leave. But the foundling desk has been under it all from the start, through much discovery and the paperdrift of many books. And here it still is. I think it might even be older than I am.
We love hearing what alumnae are up to. Would you write a few words for our magazine, with advice to current pupils? Not in sport, obvs.’
What would I have liked to know at that age? I remember my main worry was what I would do in the outside world. I dearly wanted a life that was creative, but I had no artistic family members or role models to show the way. How would I become the sort of person who made an art my profession?
Obviously skills would be necessary, but I think it starts before that; a crusade at an intrinsic, instinctive level.
So this is the advice I’d have appreciated.
First, follow your interest.
In my day, the school was housed in three handsome old houses, joined by their gardens. Our classrooms had tantalising remnants of their times as family homes – stucco ceilings and fireplaces, which I would gaze at, daydreaming.
The maths room was in a small Gothic building and was particularly delightful. Outside its window was a set of grassed-over steps that led to the original front door. I had no aptitude for maths, and anyway those old rooms suggested mental exercises that were much more beguiling – to imagine the people who had lived here, with their own dramas, before it was a school.
After a few years we moved to new classrooms with breeze-block walls and my maths improved considerably. But that old building started me on a lifetime habit to roam in my imagination. It also gave me an abiding love of lost places – which still entertain me today (you’ll certainly see evidence of that in Lifeform Threeand Not Quite Lost).
My second tip is this: make your own rules.
In those days, English O level had two papers, one of which was an essay. Our teacher advised us to avoid the story option. ‘Because no one does the story well,’ he said. I was a quiet, law-abiding pupil and took every instruction seriously, but this was a maxim I couldn’t follow.
All that term, I turned in story after story, as I always had, and the teacher didn’t mind at all. When it came to the O level, the examiners didn’t mind either. Sometimes when you defy the rules, you find your true path.
At school I loathed exercise. I had all the left feet possible. I couldn’t catch a ball and I couldn’t see balls anyway without specs. All creatures know when they are disliked, and I sensed how the games teachers loathed me. By the same token, they surely knew I did not hold their subject in high esteem. This is my school magazine. None of these people are me.
Looking back, that might have been one of the first signs that I should be a writer. Writers are creatures of brain and imagination. The sports offered by my school were the opposite – charmless, inane and pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum, or at least my nature does. Especially a vacuum of interest. Nothing on earth could make me interested in netball, hockey, rounders, and the summer torments that involved throwing, jumping and running. Again, none of these people are me.
These days, though, I run or take a class most days a week. What’s changed? Certainly I’ve learned to love movement a little more in its own right. But chiefly I value it as headspace.
For me, exercise is a chance to unplug an idea from the clutter of desk life. It’s not just escape. The movement adds its own seasoning. I notice that endorphins make thoughts travel lighter, along straighter lines. I’m more confident to consider radical changes. Fatigue is also my friend. Impatient for a tiring session to end, I discover – and solve – problems I didn’t know were there. Some of the grit drops into my thoughts, adding an interesting edge. Amy X Wang @amyxwang talks about this in Glimmer Train, where the pain of intense exercise brings vigour to the page. Sometimes I find the results, back at the desk, are sublime. Sometimes they are ridiculous, but hey.
The Prime Writers @theprimewriters , on their blog, posted about exercise for contemplation, inspired by literary running addict Haruki Murakami. Some, though, were looking for exercise to provide a drastic escape from their thoughts. Jon Teckman @jontwothreefour said he started taking military Boot Camp training, because it was so agonising that thought was impossible.
I’ve yet to find that state of oblivion myself. No matter how gruelling the exercise, nothing turns off the tyrant book. Not quivering through my 160th rep in Body Pump. Not pummelling a pair of sparring pads while being yelled at by a boxing instructor. If I’ve got a book in my bonnet, nothing can dislodge it. I can keep the brain in one dimension while the body battles in another. (With just one exception. Riding a horse, you’d better pay full attention or you’re sure of a big surprise.)
If you’re ever in a class with me and I appear to look meditative, don’t be fooled. I had a yoga phase about twelve years ago, which coincided with one of my ghostwritten thrillers. I remember standing and bending through the Sun Salutation, while I figured out what it felt like to drown in an ornamental pond.
Yes, I’ve certainly considered that I might be just as irksome to fitness instructors of 2018 as I was in the Class of 1970-whatnot, because they know I’m only half-there.
And here’s the thing. At school, what I hated was the mindlessness of exercise, the lack of mental entertainment. I need an occupation for the head while the hands and feet are doing their thing. I’m afraid this means I’ll never be the kind of person who seeks a state of mindfulness; it’s not the way I’m wired. But I definitely seek mind fullness. And now, exercise provides a very agreeable space to take an idea for a spin.
Actually, not Spin. I don’t think I’ll ever like Spin.
Tell me your thoughts! Love exercise? Hate it? How does it fit with your creative life?
PS if you want to know more about the books I’m wrangling while I run or test the patience of a fitness instructor, sign up for my newsletter.
I am so chuffed to be on The Quivering Pen books blog, the online hideout of Iraq War novelist David Abrams. I’ve been following it for years. I have shamelessly headhunted many of its guests for The Undercover Soundtrack (and yes, you’ll see David’s Soundtrack here soon).
David has a series called My First Time, where authors confess a virgin experience of writing and publishing life. I’m there today talking about distraction projects – creative stuff you do when you really should be doing something else. You probably all know my travel diary is one of those, but I’ve actually been far more distractible than that. In my time I’ve made recipe books and a music soundtrack for a series of illustrated books. All of which taught me surprising things when I returned to my proper work.
Anyway, do pop over. Especially if you really should be doing something more important.
There’s no doubt that travel is good for creativity, but travel doesn’t have to mean going to new places. There’s also the other sense – the act of being in motion, of making a journey. Journeying is one of my favourite creative times. I look forward to getting in my car and daydreaming while I drive a familiar route, or looking out of a window while sitting on a train (provided it is actually moving, of course).
Today I’m at the blog of Vivienne Tuffnell (whose name you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor, and more besides). One of Viv’s chief interests is creativity, and having read Not Quite Lost, she asked me to come to her blog and talk about the benefits of travel for freeing the imagination. Especially the unexpected places that inspiration might hide.
Which brings me to the bathroom. To find out more, take a trip to Viv’s blog.
Another guest post! You might be forgiven for thinking I’m using this blog as a hotel, dropping in to leave signposts instead of staying put and giving you something to read without another click. I’m sure this is just an artefact of launch time and the giddy whirl will slow down soon.
There are a few sections about my publishing background, which might be of interest if you’ve recently started reading this blog, but easily skimmable if you’ve heard it before. And there’s a snippet or two about Not Quite Lost, but again you can skip that if you’ve already Heard Quite Enough. Do come over.
Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang is probably better known as its movie adaptation, Arrival. I haven’t yet seen the movie – but before I do, I want to post about the prose story because it pulls off a trick that seems impossible in the literal and external medium of film.
Spoilers follow; if that’s a problem, toodle-pip and see you next time.
Still here? Fasten seatbelt. Off we go.
Story of Your Life opens as alien artefacts appear on Earth. They seem to be windows into a spacecraft. The narrator is a language expert who is called in to help establish contact. This narrative is intercut with another story – a letter to her daughter, who, we soon learn, has died.
Two narrative threads
One of the narrative threads is linear – the process of decoding the language. The other, the story of the daughter, has a more haphazard order. One moment we see her as an infant; the next, her mother is travelling to identify her dead body.
The focus isn’t on revelations or startling events. We’re not directed to wonder what the aliens want and there aren’t any secrets to learn about the daughter and her fate. The story’s interest is smaller scale, an unravelling process of study. While the aliens and humans evaluate each other, the narrator is retracing the times with her daughter. Indeed, for some readers it might veer perilously close to the navel-gazing kind of literary story where nothing appears to happen.
But there is a story
Still, something kept me reading – a sense of exploration, in themes of time, development and change. There’s a searching emotion, a sense of puzzlement. One puzzle is literal – the intellectual task of figuring out the aliens’ language. The other puzzle is less easy to solve – the phenomenon of the narrator’s loss. Her mind grasps at memories and questions: how her daughter could grow up so fast; how parenting could cause such anxiety and wonder; how the narrator’s own life could extend beyond the beginning and the end of her child’s. This interior working is the true quest of the story, the narrative momentum.
As the narrator studies the aliens’ language, she begins to grasp their way of thinking. While humans’ world view is mostly linear, like our sentences that place one word after another, the aliens think in complex constructs of time. Their written language is more like a work of art, an image that contains many ideas all at once. With this comes the main reveal. The action with the aliens is not in the present, but in the past. It’s how the parents met. The family life – and ultimate tragedy – is yet to come.
Described like this, the revelation seems rather negligible, but within the atmosphere of the story I found it to be a powerful perceptional pivot. It suddenly transforms everything we’ve seen.
The process of learning the aliens’ language has altered the narrator’s perception and allowed her to reach a resolution. Because of the way the aliens communicate about time as complete pictures, the narrator is able to see her years with her daughter as a complete, rich life, instead of just its endpoint, a numbing loss. We finish with the narrator and her husband coming together on the night that will be the daughter’s conception – and an uplifting feeling that, if you look at it as a whole, the best is yet to come.
Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now. To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.
And here’s the thing. I don’t know of any medium that could do this better than prose. I’ll be interested to see the film adaptation, but I’m guessing its story will have to be more literal, perhaps including a device like time travel or precognitive vision. It may work well in its own terms, but I can’t see how it could achieve this subtle, deep-level trick of switch and release, which allows the narrator to let go of the tragedy. The interior shifts are as important as the objective facts. And they’re only possible because prose has such a close contact with the reader’s mind.
Tell me your interpretation
As with all good stories, you could argue several interpretations (and do add yours below in the comments if you wish to). But whatever your takeaway, Ted Chiang’s prose has achieved something rather fascinating – the learning process about the alien language has gradually adjusted the reader’s brain.