When the World Spins Backwards

In the run up to publication date of our new book NOD by Adrian Barnes (31st October, did we mention that?), Michael Stewart, author of KING CROW talked to Adrian about his influences and what drove him to write NOD. Here it is in full, or you can pop over to Michael’s blog to read it there: When the World Spins Backwards.

We are all going to die. Quite soon. We all know this to be true and yet we fill our lives with trivia, petty trifles and stamp collections. Perhaps this is why we do: the truth is too, well, true. NOD is the latest Bluemoose novel. It is set in an alternative present, where a plague of insomnia sweeps the globe. Within days, society has collapsed. The isolated few who continue to sleep are vilified and hunted down. A madman becomes the leader of the ‘awakened’. It is not a story that shirks from the ugly truth of our mortality. In advance of the novel’s publication, I interviewed Canadian writer Adrian Barnes.

MS: It has often been said that science fiction and speculative fiction, while describing another world, are always addressing the concerns of our own world. Do you agree with this and if so, in what way does NOD do this do you think?

AB: In writing Nod, I was directly inspired by Harlan Ellison, an early hero of mine, who once said in an interview that ‘speculative fiction’ was the only real modern fiction because things change so quickly that novels attempting to capture the present end up as nostalgia by the time they’re published. It’s only by trying to peer a few seconds into the future that we can even hope to understand today. I think Nod addresses a feeling in the air that there is no rest to be had in the 21st century and that what we call order is both temporary and–at heart–insane. All of the indicating curves are exponential; something has to give and it’s probably going to be us.

MS: That’s a very interesting answer Adrian. I haven’t heard of Harlan Ellison. I’d like to read more now though, where’s a good place to start? On the subject of the 21st century, the movement away from order, towards chaos, are you talking about the Western financial institutions, or do you include global politics? JG Ballard said something about society collapsing in a week without basic services such as water, which is very similar to how events transpire in your book. Would you cite Ballard as an influence too?

AB: I haven’t read Ellison in two decades, to be honest, but his black passion and rage at the proverbial machine was a formative influence on me when I was a teenager and I’d get on the bus, head downtown, and troll the used bookstores of Vancouver for his (even then) out-of-print story collections. Check out Paingod and Other Delusions or The Glass Teat (a book of television criticism). He’s still alive and visible on YouTube as a righteously cranky old guy!

As for our collective drive toward chaos, I don’t blame the powerful. Thanatos is embedded in the heart of our entire culture–business people are merely those who are good at doing the sorts of things almost all of us would do if given the chance. We’re collectively willing chaos. Even our religion, Christianity, is apocalyptic. Our most highly-held metaphor is probably that of the open road, but we live in a limited world. The terrible irony is that, as a society, we’ve never even seriously tried to reconcile metaphor and reality. That’s madness–or idiocy.

Interesting that you cite Ballard. I read him during my sci-fi youth, but would have to place him in the same category as Ellison: formative, but in a very deeply-buried way. I can’t really remember his stories or his style. Writing Nod, though, I was aware of all these influences, and of comic books and science fiction films, as ways to fumble past the unreality of ‘reality’ toward something larger and more true than the pervading fictions of malls and media.

MS: I like the sound of The Glass Teat. We are talking about Thanatos, and the propensity towards disorder, another term we could use would be entropy. It’s a very attractive notion I think because it mirrors our own mortal existence, our own goal towards decay and then death. A journey from lightness to darkness. If we look at homo sapiens as a species though, the journey has been the opposite one: out of the caves, into modern cities: a journey from darkness to lightness. We are talking about two forces then, the generative one, and its obverse, destruction. There have always been the doom meisters, the preachers of perdition, who shout ‘the end is nigh’, what stops your book from being part of that tradition?

AB: Maybe nothing! Actually, quite a lot, I hope. I’m an optimist by nature, but I try to be an optimist with wide open eyes. You make a great point that the ant-like march toward darkness is nothing new, and I agree that it’s a mirror of the body’s journey through life toward death. But on a parallel track there’s also the spiritual road or the road of knowledge which tends to go in the exact opposite direction–as you say, from ignorance to wisdom and from darkness to light.

The sun is a huge metaphor in NOD and hope is represented by the mysterious children who live in the park. They’ve made some enormous leap away from the set path. The same goes for Paul, the narrator. He’s been drawn away from the trek toward doom even though he doesn’t know why or how. Who does?

MS: Although I’m a fan of Ballard’s imagination, I find his characters merely sock-puppets for his message. This is perhaps true of lots of writers who are interested primarily in ideas. What strikes me about NOD is the complexity of your characterisation, particularly the protagonist Paul and his girlfriend Tanya, who feel flesh and blood. I like their inconsistencies and their idiosyncrasies, although Paul is a self-confessed misanthrope. He’s not, on the surface a ‘likeable’ character. There has been a lot of discussion recently amongst the literati about how important it is to have sympathetic characters driving a story. How do you feel about that?

AB: I’d make a distinction between ‘like’ and ‘find sympathetic’. When we like people it’s generally because we find them unproblematic–or because their particular shortcomings sync with our own in some way. In fact, I find ‘like’ a pretty milky word. On the other hand, we sometimes sympathize with difficult people when we can see the integrity they bring to their struggle. Who really ‘likes’ Hamlet or Raskolnikov or would want to go to dinner at their place (well, more than once)? But, equally, who can’t relate? I see Paul as someone who’s trying his best in a completely impossible, overwhelming situation–the end of the world! I don’t expect the reader to cosy up to him, but I do hope they take him to task and even wrestle alongside him as he tries to cope. What’s not to sympathize with?

If you ask me, there’s far too much emphasis on niceness and happiness and fun in our brave new world. And it hasn’t ended up being a particularly nice, happy or fun place despite our best Disney-fied, Facebook-ized efforts. I prefer to hash things out–or have my characters do it for me!


MS: To what extent is Paul you?

AB: Given my previous, somewhat Spock-like answer, I’m not surprised you’re asking! I do share many of Paul’s concerns about the species and–like him–I do tend to step back and analyze things fairly dispassionately, but I’m glad to report that I’m also an engaged, friendly, and befriended mammal! The more I realize what we’re all up against, the more I’m amazed by how the vast majority of us maintain our humanity in the face of corporate and state onslaught.

MS: I was reading in the paper yesterday about the mania surrounding the release of the new iPhone. One man in the queue said, and I quote, ‘Apple is my church. This is my Sunday worship.’ Is it these types of experiences that inspired you to conceive, ironically, of the ‘awakened’?

AB: Let’s hope your man in the queue was being at least a little ironic! But, yes–religion based around technology, religion based around money, religion based around sex, religion based around imaginary old men in the sky. What I find less than inspiring about the species is our propensity toward looking elsewhere for salvation. It draws us away from reality, which is really what Nod is about: the choice we all must make between what’s actually here in front of us and various seductive forms of fantasy.

I suppose the choice for me is between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, as they say. Religion pretends to offer you answers while spirituality helps you explore questions. At least that’s how I break it down. Some religions have spiritual aspects, of course–and some spiritual quests harden into religious dogma.

MS: In the book, those ‘awakened’ – the vast majority of the population who are unable to sleep at all – go mad after six days and die after twenty-eight. To what extent is this based on scientific evidence?

AB: I did research this subject and the longest a person has ever been kept awake–totally awake–in a controlled scientific environment, has been six days. By that time the test subject is indeed suffering from ‘sleep deprivation psychosis’ which reverses quickly once they are allowed a nap. The idea of death at twenty-eight days has been posited but is speculative. However it’s well known that, without adequate restorative sleep, people’s health declines very quickly. It’s also worth noting that ‘totally awake’ means something very specific. All insomniacs actually doze a little every night, even if they don’t remember afterwards.

MS: It has been fascinating to chat with you Adrian. The book is brilliant on both the micro-level: each carefully crafted sentence, the care you have taken in your choice of language; and the macro-level: the overall design of the book, the characters and structure. It’s also a book that isn’t afraid to explore lofty themes. I’m deeply impressed. I know you did an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University (as I did). How do you feel about the teaching of Creative Writing?

AB: Thanks so much for your interest and kind words, Michael. I’ve just begun teaching Creative Writing this fall, actually, so it’s a little soon to say as I’m just getting into it now. I come from more of a composition/rhetoric/journalism background. Certainly my Creative Writing students are an inspiration. People who are willing to take time and spend money to learn to do something as ‘useless’ as learning to express themselves are individuals we should all treasure. And I do.

MS: You are coming over to England in November to promote the novel. How do you think Canada differs from England? Is there anything you’d like to say as a final word?

AB: In terms of Canada versus the UK, what I’ve found is that the British are a little more open to edgy ideas and dark humour than Canadians. There’s more of an emphasis on politeness over here, certainly in the publishing world. It’s not a bad or a good thing, just different. Working on Nod with Brits has felt natural and has been extremely rewarding. A sort of coming home, in a funny way.

I always enjoy my visits to the UK and am greatly looking forward to launching Nod in the town where I was born… Blackpool!

Read Regional 2012

We’ve had a brilliant week here at Bluemoose Towers, rounded off today with some more excellent news. We are really chuffed to tell you about our involvement with New Writing North’s Read Regional 2012 campaign.

This annual campaign connects local authors to local readers and includes writers and poets across the North-East, Yorkshire and Humberside. Our very own Michael Stewart will be getting involved and showcasing his book KING CROW.

As part of the campaign, Michael will be visiting various libraries in the region as well as taking park in the Durham Book Festival from 13th to 30th October.

The campaign to promote new books by northern writers runs from October 2012 until spring 2013 and will involve libraries, bookshops and festivals in the region, so come back here to find out what Michael will be up to over the coming months.

So as not to miss out on all the action you can follow us on Twitter at @ofmooseandmen, or follow New Writing North at @NewWritingNorth.

Read Regional is run by New Writing North, in partnership with 23 library authorities across the north of England. It is funded by Arts Council England. For more information, please visit and

Stephen May meets Benjamin Myers for a cuppa

Stephen May, writer of Life! Death! Prizes! popped up his road and had a cuppa with our author Benjamin Myers. The result of their chat was a little interview about life and writing which Stephen has posted on his blog. Here’s a little excerpt:

He’s good company. Serious and thoughtful about his work and committed. He writes, he walks, he thinks. Reads, listens to music, watches films. That’s pretty much it. Doesn’t drink or smoke, commits himself to refining his vision and expressing it. He’s impressively dedicated and the work is muscular, powerful and original.

Read the whole thing at The Second Best Time.

Moose on tour

I had a great time selling books in The Hebden Bridge Bookshop, even cajoled two unlikely browsers to purchase THORN by Michael Dean and THE HARDEST CLIMB by Alistair Sutcliffe, two of the latest Bluemoose titles. The Moose was on tour over the weekend, going down to Waterstones’s Chelmsford on Saturday for the book signing of THORN by Michael Dean. It was a great success, good to meet Michael and have a chat to Marissa, the very passionate book lover and manager of the Wats store.

Michael will be giving a talk and signing copies of his book at Colchester Library this forthcoming Saturday 24th September. And we’ve just had some exciting news about films and one of our titles but I can’t say too much as blood has yet to be spilled in negotiations and we’re trying to keep the lawyers at bay.

Toodlepip book lovers.

Not the Booker Prize review

After a nervous wait of a few weeks, we’re really pleased with the review for PIG IRON by Benjamin Myers for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. We’ve added it as it appears on the Guardian website, written by Sam Jordison.

Since the Not The Booker prize is all about openness, I think you should know right away that I like Ben Myers. Is this a conflict of interest? Arguably. But if it is a conflict, it's one that is played out across the books pages every day. The only difference here is that I'm being honest about it.

As I'm sure you already realise, friends review friends all the time. And if they didn't, literary journalism would have a few problems. Reviewers often become chummy with the people they write about. It's human nature. I became a reviewer because I like books; it follows that I'll probably also like a few of the writers of those books. Should I then refuse to read their books because of that affection? Well, we can have it out in the comments, but first, a bit more explanation:

I first came into contact with Ben years ago, because I liked his sweary prose, as this article (containing the wonderful question "Has anyone ever seen an e-book?") witnesses. I read Ben before I knew him. But since then, we've regularly corresponded, met once, and frequently laughed at slowed down versions of Metallica songs on Facebook. Does this alter the way I'm going to review Pig Iron? Possibly. The thing that gives me pause is wondering whether I'd have been able to write a review for Pig Iron like the one I wrote for Paint This Town Red. I think it would have been difficult. Perhaps I'd have managed it. Perhaps…

Happily, I didn't have to explore that dilemma this time around. I liked the book. And I don't think knowing Ben has influenced my opinion. Not too much, anyway. Maybe I warmed to it more quickly than I might have otherwise. Possibly, also, I felt extra pangs of sympathy because John-John Wisdom, the unfortunate main narrator, is a weird short northerner who's fond of Jack Russell terriers and therefore reminded me of Ben himself. But it was the writing that mattered. The writing.

One more quick personal note before I finally stop talking about myself. I spent part of my early childhood in County Durham, not so far from John-John's home in Pig Iron, and Myers' prose, rich in "mebbes" and "marrers", "nees" and "nowts", "haways" and "shite", tickled my memory. Importantly, it seemed real. John-John and his co-narrator (whom I can't name, since to do so would give away one of the book's successful surprises) speak in a stylised and sometimes strange way: "And that was when I got the weakness on me and I did faint." But it never seems forced or inauthentic.

Better still, I barely registered the unusual voice, after a while. It became part of the texture of John-John's world. Every now and again I was conscious of an appealing bit of yakka: "I've shat bigger jobbies than that lad." Also, a few lovely rhythms: "He began to treat me differently. I was a mother now. A mother who had endured one miscarriage and two births. I was a body that fetched the water and gathered the wood and kept the fires going and cleaned the clothes and the van and scolded the kids and kissed them better and worried about her husband when he disappeared for nights and days." Most of the time, though, I was too immersed in the story to notice what was happening on the surface.

It's hard not to make this story sound like a cross between Snatch and Fight Club. John-John is the son of the bare-knuckle King of the Gypsies, Mac Wisdom, whose life we hear about in retrospect from the second narrator, and whose influence weighs heavy on the protagonist as he attempts to rebuild his life after a long stretch in jail. But there's no Brad Pitt here. No Hollywood. John-John's world is ugly. The fighting isn't about pleasure. Or even escape. It's just savage men knocking bells out of each other: blood, guts and pain described in visceral detail:

Mackem's neck tasted warm and bitter and metallic… I loosened for a second then went at him again, nearly dislocating me bloody jaw. There was a crunching sound and me teeth nearly met in the middle and I must have hit some veins or summat because the blood started pouring out of his neck. Human flesh doesn't tear easily. It's noisy stuff.

Things aren't much prettier for John-John when he isn't scrapping. He's forced to live in a pokey, ugly flat on a dangerous estate, where he knows next to no one, and is hounded by a gang of "charvers" whose charm is well-demonstrated in their leader's announcement that "I'll put you in the fucking ovens where you and your lot belong."

Even so, there are moments of relief. John-John is consistently amusing, a master of the sardonic aside ("'I bet you like hearing the old tales, lad'. Like a punch in the cock, I'm muttering.") He's also big-hearted and warm. Some of the book's best passages come in the descriptions of the quiet fun John-John has tootling around the countryside ("the green cathedral") in an ice-cream van, falling in love with a very unsuitable local girl and fussing over his pet dog Coughdrop. John-John is a winning presence. And of course, that makes his catalogue of misfortunes and persecution all the more upsetting; his attempts to right those many wrongs all the more gripping.

Caught up as I was, I did wonder sometimes if Myers pushed things too far. Towards the end, especially, things went a bit nuts. Imagine Hunger Games with an uglier cast, genuine violence and less chance of redemption – but also fewer loud bangs to distract you from the essential daftness. Now and again, I had doubts, but was always carried through by John-John's force of personality and righteous anger at his and Coughdrop's oppressors. What's more, just when I thought things were about to go right over the top, Myers swerved away gracefully. The ending came in a sudden flash of gold and beauty. To say more would be to give it away; suffice to say, you'll like it when you get there and it's a journey worth making. This is another quality entrant on our shortlist.

NOD by Adrian Barnes

NOD by Adrian Barnes, our new book, arrives into the Bluemoose warehouse today and we’re all very excited!

Ben Myers, author of PIG IRON says about NOD, ‘Think WARRIORS, the film, scripted by JG Ballard with excerpts from Ray Bradbury.’ KING CROW author Michael Stewart says the first chapter of NOD is one of the best openings of any book he’s ever read. He went on to say he loved every single page of it.

I know they are both Bluemoose authors, but we haven’t paid them anything and they have their own minds; that’s why they came to an Indy in the first place. Just think if Mr Amis hadn’t pursued the dollar, he’d have won the Booker by now! Heaven forfend.

We’re flying Adrian Barnes over from Vancouver for the launch and a series of events and signings at Independent booksellers and Waterstones. Adrian will also be giving lectures at a couple of Universities too. More of that nearer the time.

Now its time to send off review copies to the great and supposed good of what was FLEET STREET. The broadsheets in the Metropolis. Scott pack, ex chief fiction buyer at Waterstones and now publisher and blogger at meandmybigmouth, said of one of our previous titles, THE ART OF BEING DEAD, that it wouldn’t get any reviews in the literary press because ‘The lit editors don’t look further than the ends of their noses.’ THE ART OF BEING DEAD is now a set text on the MA course in Contemporary literature at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Now that there are three books from small independents on The Man Booker shortlist, perhaps they won’t bin all books from publishers whose colophon they don’t recognise. Hopefully they’ve learned their lesson and realise that all the exciting literary fiction these days is coming from small Independents.

Tired of McEwan, Barnes, Faulks et al. and all those sixty-something males that get all the review coverage? Yep, me too. The Indies are coming “darn sarf” to rattle the cages of the literary establishment and in NOD by Adrian Barnes I really believe we have a title that will stir things up a tad.

Moose loose in a book shop

This morning I am to be let loose on the unsuspecting book buying public of Hebden Bridge. Gillian and Ross, the proprietors of The Hebden Bridge Bookshop have left the county for the day and have given me the keys.

Now I have been a sales rep for myriad publishers from pension stealing and spy Robert Maxwell to the Earl of Donoghmore’s son, Tim Hely Hutchinson, but I have never sold books directly to readers. I’m also a publisher at Bluemoose books and the simple deal is that we publish great stories that engage and inspire. Well today, I’ll find out how inspiring our books are. I have threatened to turn the bookshop into a shrine to the Moose, and I may. Photographs will follow.

The great thing about bookshops is the browse factor. You can’t get that with your Amazon online brief perusal nonsense. You have to pick up a book, feel it, smell it and read the first page. At Moose Towers we pride ourselves on production and our jackets. We have noticed that potential purchasers when picking up one of our books find themselves stroking it. You can’t stroke online, well you can but it is an arrestable offence.

Well, I’m Off to put some Eau De Biblio on, that should entice the book buyer public into the shop. That and shouting at them should do it.

Moose at large

It’s really important for us as a small independent publisher to get out and about as often as possible and spread the word. We like to meet as many readers and budding writers as we can. We do this for several reasons. Obviously, we want to make people aware of Bluemoose books and the brilliant titles we have to offer, we may also be lucky enough to find our next author, but equally we want to let people know about what we are trying to achieve with Bluemoose Books, our experience as an independent publisher and the state of the publishing industry as a whole.

We were recently invited by the Lincoln Pheonix Writers to talk about the Bluemoose “way” and had a great evening meeting enthusiastic readers and writers and sharing our experiences with them. Thanks to everyone there for the warm welcome!

On 22nd September, Kevin is attending another event at Macclesfield Library. This is Cheshire East Libraries’ annual celebration of books and reading. There is a full programme including talks by writers and other publishers. Kevin will be talking about his experience as a publisher but also exploring the issues regarding new technologies versus traditional methods of publishing.

More information can be found on the Cheshire East website [Updated July 2014, the page no longer exists], or follow @CEClibraries.

The event starts at 12.30pm on Saturday 22nd September. I will be talking from 3.30 – 4pm.

For more information and tickets, contact Macclesfield Library on 01625 374000.


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