Monthly Archives: May 2008

Photographic Memories

Katherine, as you might know, is a very keen photographer. Much of my holidays are spent standing waiting for photos to be taken. Of course, if you asked Katherine I’m sure she’d say that most of her holidays are spent sitting in cafés waiting for me to finish a writing a paragraph. Of course neither is really true.

When I’m standing waiting for a photograph to be taken I often get the chance to watch people’s reaction. It’s interesting to see. People are constantly trying to crane their neck round to see what she could possibly be taking a photo of. This is especially true here in the UK. On holiday people expect others to be taking photos. Here at home people are clearly quite confused that you might want to take a photo of a rubber band.

© Katherine Hall

Katherine has decided to get serious about her photography. And so she has launched a website and a blog. Truth be told at the moment the website pretty much just is the blog.

When people finish looking at the rubber band, or whatever it is, they often look up at me pleading with their eyes for an explanation. I smile encouragingly, but they never approach. Perhaps now I can direct them to the website.

Buy The Book

The Book with the Missing First Page is a collection of short stories published by me which is available on Amazon to buy.

You may be thinking, “But Alex I have already bought a copy”. I’m afraid it has come to the time to either convince a friend to buy a copy or to buy a copy for a friend. What better gift could you imagine than a copy of this book?*

If you don’t believe me then read this review that recently appeared on Amazon:

I’ve never much cared for the short story as a literary form. Just as you’re starting to like the characters or get into the plot, it’s all over. But Alex Andronov’s new volume may force me to reconsider.

The book is a smorgasbord of genres and styles, just as enjoyable to dip into at random as to read cover to cover. There is something for everyone – fantasy, sci-fi, mystery and Gothic horror, as well as more earthbound but no less striking vignettes of fragile relationships in domestic settings.

The collection hosts a cavalcade of unforgettably outlandish characters, from conniving elderly pirates and amorous nanobots to asthmatic cockney beagles, but there’s more going on than just absurdist silliness (although there is plenty of that). ‘Moon miners’ is a stunning environmental fable about a moon made of cheese being slowly devoured by its population of indolent mice. It’s the sort of thing I’d want my children to read (but be warned – there are some adult themes in this book).

There’s so much to admire in these stories – they show intelligence, Woody Allen-esque wit and a bubbling imagination, but also a great love of language. ‘Cross words to say’ is a tale of romance between two cryptic crossword fans, while ‘Soup’ will change the way you look at the alphabet forever.

The genuine highlights for me, though, were the less flamboyant moments. The title story, with its depiction of an old man recalling childhood traumas at the sight of a mutilated book, is painfully raw and moving. And ‘Left out in the cold’, which depicts a teacher freezing outside a door he mistakenly believes to be locked, is so rich in potential meanings that it’s haunted me for weeks.

You’ll finish this book thinking of just two words: more please.

*Please don’t post better gift suggestions in the comments, that’s just mean.

The lie in

I’m doing a lot of early morning writing in my attempts to make some progress on my novel (13% completed of the arbitrary number I first thought of – thanks for asking). This has led to Katherine and I disagreeing on a matter of principal that only you dear Internet readers can answer. What is a lie in?

For me it could be that you wake up and lie in bed reading your book or it could be that you usually have to get up at five thirty and today you get to sleep until eight.

Katherine, on the other hand, thinks that you only have a lie in if you’re awake and lying in bed. Not if you sleep in.

So which is it? You decide.

Mrs Fallon

Mrs Fallon was my first inspirational teacher. She was, as far as I could tell, completely nuts. She was my science teacher and she had bags of presence. She had, remember it was the nineties, a two foot beehive hairdo which was greying but was no less impressive. Her twin sons were the music producers behind the success of David Hasselhoff. In the small storeroom behind the science room she had a skeleton.

Usually you waited for the teacher in the classroom but not in the science lab. She was always in the same room, class after class. But she made us stand outside because she wanted to enjoy a cigar between classes. She would normally still be smoking it while we filed in. As the last child sat down she would flick it from the front of the class into the bin at the back. How high we were at the end of the class was a factor of how much paper and how many chemicals there were in the bin when the cigar arrived.

She used this flicking skill to great effect in classes. I anyone spoke out of turn she would throw the board duster at the back of the classroom. It caused an enormous noise. If you disobeyed her while she was writing at the board she would turn, let go of the piece of chalk and it would go whistling past your ear. It was so swift you never even had time to move out of the way. I remember a boy called David getting hit right on the top corner of his right ear. It was an exquisite punishment. It showed she was in charge and he was powerless to respond.

I was reminded of her at the weekend when I was out to dinner with some friends. One of them was talking about a friend of theirs who had transported a tarantula on a transatlantic flight in their beehive – something that Mrs Fallon could quite easily have done. She didn’t get caught despite her husband being caught wearing a reticulated python around his belly. The customs officials clearly thought, “what’s the likelihood that both of them are transporting dangerous animals?”. A real life snakes on a plane moment.

Mrs Fallon must be retired by now, a terrible shame. She was one of the first people to make me understand that being normal wasn’t the optimum. In fact most normal people envied those who could successfully go and do something else. Being unusual for those who do it keeps them sane. It’s not really a choice. You are already different. But sometimes you need somebody to show you that unusual is a genuine option. Mrs Fallon was certainly one of the people who showed me that.

About Gary and Fern

Since I decided to become a writer I have been reading authors talking about their craft. The question beyond all others that they are asked is, “where do you get your ideas?”. It is as though there is some mystical trunk of ideas somewhere which authors use to come up with themes for stories. I am afraid that’s not true. It only serves to show how people are quite happy to mythologize their heroes. In the question is the assumption that the asker’s ideas are somehow less than those of an author’s. It suggests that an author is somehow a different breed.

I published a short story here last the weekend called Gary and Fern (If you haven’t read it you may want to before reading the rest of this). I thought I would talk a little bit about the process. About the way that I got the idea and the way that the story developed.

I really like puns. I have to say that one of the most crucial story development methods I use is imagining a pun. A vague joke to hang an idea from. It’s often not obvious by the end what the pun was. But it’s important to point me in the right direction. So this weekend I was sorting out some rubbish in the utility room.* There was an almost empty wine holder there. It had come from my mum over christmas she’d brought it in the back of her car. For whatever reason the can of antifreeze had been placed into the wine holder. When it had come into the house by mistake it was always meant to go back but it had been forgotten.

So I was moving it out of the way. In my mind as I was doing this I thought, “Anti-freeze” kind of goes like “Antacid”. Is there a joke there? No… But “Ant Acid” that’s formic acid. That’s a joke. Or at least a pun. So instead of making a joke, I wrote a story. Who could possibly make a comment about that? An ant. But it’s not funny unless he’s explaining it to another species. A human? No too weird. How about a spider. Do spiders and ants get on? No I think spiders eat ants. Does this one? No he’s different – he likes him? Why? Because he tells jokes. That’s how I’ll get the ant acid thing in.

With a short story there are two problems – largely. How do you get in and how do you get out. People need to feel that there is a good reason to stop telling the story even if, or especially if, the narrative doesn’t end at the end of your telling of the story. It’s difficult to leave on “they all lived happily ever after” – so far I’ve never done it. But if you aren’t going to end with that, what are you going to do?

For me in this story I was torn between, and wrote, two version of the ending. The one you read where Fern survived and one where as Fern dropped but missed all the strands and died. I pretty much randomly decided to save Fern. I have no idea why except that when I enjoyed writing for the characters as much as I did there is a chance that they will be back in another story. The other version would have been quite sad and as the sun was shining when I wrote it, I decided to go for the happy version.

An important thing to remember when you’re writing is what your reader brings to the story. I knew that some readers wouldn’t get the ant acid joke. I didn’t mind that. I telegraphed it as much as I could while staying in character. If I went for the joke too much it wouldn’t have sounded right to those who would have got it anyway.

Names are another problem. As you might have seen from the comments Fourstar couldn’t help but imagine a Fern and Gary from memories of celebrities. That’s slightly annoying because I didn’t think of it when I wrote it. I was going to have Gary and Vern but I decided to make a soundalike in Fern and forgot to check with my own memory to see if Fern was a real name of anyone. I wanted to make it recognisable but unusual enough to make you assume that something odd was happening. Clearly this didn’t work this time with this reader. I am here to tell you however that this always happens every time. You can’t imagine all of the interpretations. The largest barrier to writing is focusing on what people will think of it later. You want to instead focus on enjoying writing it and removing confusion. Try and make everything you write as clear as you can and it will help no end. You have to serve the reader in this way, but you can’t ever totally second guess them. Worrying too much about that will stop you starting in the first place.

* Yes we have a utility room now!!! Incredible.

Gary and Fern

“Yeah, Gary?”
“Fern, you’ve excreted some formic acid over here.”
“Sorry, Gary.”

There was a pause while Fern walked over and took a look, “Oh man, sorry Gary, I feel so ashamed. Eat me now. Seriously eat me now.”

I looked at Fern, an ant who had hopped off a bus and into my life. Hi, I’m Gary, I’m a spider. Normally we eat ants, but Fern was funny.

He piped up again, “Seriously Gary, for a second, I know you had a big lunch, two wasps wasn’t it?”
“Well, after a big lunch like that, I thought you might have a little indigestion. You might want some ant acid. No? C’mon?”

Or at least I thought Fern was funny. For an ant.

Some music struck up in the apartment next to where we were standing.

“Fern, do you like rappers?”
“What chocolate wrappers or gangster rappers?”
“Ganger rappers I guess, I mean rap music more than any particular gangster connotation.”
“I don’t know. I mean, yeah it’s okay I guess.”
“Okay, so I’m going to ask you this question. Do you trust me Fern?”
“Yeah sure Gary. I mean, of course.”
“Would you be willing to step onto my web?”

Fern knew that if he stepped onto the web his only chance of escape was for him to be given the chance to eat away at the silk which would attach itself to his legs. He could do it. We both knew of ants who had escaped, but he’d have to trust that I’d give him the time to do it. I would of course. I didn’t need to eat him.

“Why Gary? Why would you want me to step onto your web?”
“Just because Fern, until you’ve listened to rap music while standing on a spider’s web you’ve never experienced rap music. What I’m talking about is the vibrations, even rap artists have never experienced rap music properly.”
“So you’re not just talking about rap music are you Gary. You’re talking about anything with a thumping baseline.”
“Yeah, in theory,” I said, “but this is 2008 in South London it’s not like we’re going to hear any drum and bass.”
“You really haven’t been off this window sill in a while have you Gary?”
“You’re right,” I said, “ I’m not one of life’s travelers. I was one of life’s waiters.”
“All right, in that case I’ll have the nettle soup.”
“What? Oh. Waiter. Right.”

A few seconds passed, more music was playing and vibrating the web very hard.

“Alright Gary. I’ll come and listen.”
“Thanks Fern, it means a lot to me.”
“You not eating me means a lot to me, remember that.”
“I promise.”

Fern walked away and climbed up the wall. He then walked upside down onto the ledge of the next floor up, twisted his body and dropped off the bottom of the windowsill. He wouldn’t have been able to get to the middle of the web any other way. One step in from the side and he’d be stuck. As he dropped I wondered how he’d ever get off the web, I was sure we’d work it out together.

He landed a strand over from me. After the initial rocking the strong vibrations of the bass line started to vibrate us up and down.

“Yes, Fern.”
“This is a very moving experience.”