The Virus

I’ve just written a short story called ‘The Virus’. I won’t give away the plot, but it was influenced by seeing so many surfers at Carcavelos beach. The beach is very close to the small apartment where I live, and I often walk along it. My friend, Bill Young, had lent me a book, called ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, by Yuval Noah Harrari. Some elements of the story were in response to Harrari’s writing.

I read that unknown writers, like myself, should try and get something in print before trying to get a novel published. The idea for this story popped into mind, unbidden, and within a day I had written it, although I kept polishing it for longer. I wanted to try and limit myself to 2,000 words, and it exactly tipped the scales at that wordcount.

There is a question, though, which I ask myself. Does playing improvised music develop your ability to intuit form and duration? I feel that it does, but I am interested in the opinion of other musicians. Of course, I have sat through many concerts of improvised music, where countless opportunities to reach a satisfying conclusion were passed over, only to end limply after an excruciatingly long coda on the road to nowhere. Nevertheless, I have been both a participant and an audience member at events which, magically, concluded with jewel-like perfection. Sometimes, concerts have ended abruptly, mid-sentence, guided by a strange collective logic that is impossible to fathom, but which makes absolute sense at the time.

What causes a group of improvisers to stop in complete synchronicity like this? One element, I think, is a sense of what the group expresses in the moments leading up to such an abrupt truncation. It also requires a shared sensibility, not just to duration or form, but to collectively intuiting that an odd fragmented resolution, at that precise moment, provides the more complete musical statement.

I can’t help asking myself, does this sensibility transfer to writing? When I was writing each episode or chapter of ‘Mirror Trick’ I had a similar sense of appropriate duration. This active feeling, however, was much harder to retain throughout the course of a whole book, written over many months. In contrast, the shorter form of ‘The Virus’ felt more like a melody, sustained over several pages, and ending with a twist. It was not like the ‘mid-sentence’ endings that you sometimes hear in free improvisation, but something oblique, with a retrospective logic, closer to the kind of resolution that you find in conventional music.

Of course, you can easily point out that I am comparing ‘apples’ and ‘pears’: that the one is a collective experience and writing, whether it be music or literature, is usually a solitary one. My question is, though, can the sensibility developed and nurtured by group improvisation be transferred and applied in a similar way, when working on one’s own, writing stories?





Why I wrote ‘Mirror Trick’

As a teenager, I was in love with the romance of literature. I adored to write descriptive prose, full of complex similes. Then, around the age of eighteen, I was influenced by the improvisatory style of the Beat writers – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs. My writing changed. The similes were replaced by rhythmic disjunctions, sudden shifts of register. When I read my texts from this period, I am amazed at their energy and bravura. I couldn’t write like that now, even if I wanted to.

Does anyone write letters anymore? I don’t. Back then, letters were the main vehicle for my writing. Pages and pages of thoughts and ideas. Suddenly people were calling me a ‘wordsmith’. I heard this word used about me over and over again, throughout my life. I would write art project proposals, promotional blurbs for musicians, texts for protest campaigns, and people would complement me on my writing. Yet I had abandoned poetry and I felt that I had nothing to contribute as an author of fiction.

My reading habits had changed too. Instead of reading works by authors who pushed at the boundaries of form, I read a lot of crime books. For a time, it became an addiction, following particular authors until I had read everything that they had written. Aware of the volume of light reading that I was consuming, I felt the need to balance my reading habits. I regulated the amount of crime books that I was reading, interspersing them with works by modern authors and the classics.

What was it that finally brought me to write ‘Mirror Trick’? In part, it was brought about by a huge change in my life. I stopped working – I had been working in a psychology department, providing specialist technical support to students and researchers. At exactly the same time, I moved from London to Lisbon, in Portugal. I started to reassess my previous conviction that I had nothing to contribute, no voice that was really my own. If that was true, why did I play improvised music? If I had no legitimate voice as a writer, why did I dare to venture onto the stage as a musician and perform at every available opportunity? You can’t do that and believe at the same time that you have nothing to say.

So, the barest outline of a plot for Mirror Trick began to suggest itself to me. I could combine my love of crime fiction with the smatterings of knowledge that I had picked up from working with researchers in psychology. As I started to write, I began to realise that the mere fact of being alive has provided me with an inexhaustible canvas of the characters that I have met along the way. It’s not just your own voice, but their voices too, that you are expressing. Then, why not create new, composite characters, blending together bits of one person with bits of another? So obvious – but so oblique and inaccessible – that is, until you try to write.

So, where is my earlier fondness for the Beat writers? Where is the experimentation with literary form? It appears that this occupies a much lower position on my scale of priorities. The crime novel, with its relatively stilted conventions, provides me with sufficient scope to express all manner of ideas. The genre is sufficiently elastic to be able to include tentative experiments with form, subtly introducing stylistic innovation. The only thing that it generally can’t do, is to transcend the expectations of its readers. Above all, this story allowed me to explore my feelings about the country where I no longer live. That country is at the heart of ‘Mirror Trick’ – the characters inhabit its locations, its figures of speech, its weather – it permeates everything, even the experiences of the Polish professor who is the central character of the book.

It is too early to say that I have ‘found my voice’. Time will tell whether that is true. All that I can claim for now, is that I have told a story, and that in doing so I found a way to incorporate a very small portion of the things that constitute who I am.