not exactly true

Mark Watson's Hotel Alpha (and associated stories!)



Joe over at The Bristol Prize has kindly drawn my attention to an interesting new book/project/experiment: Mark Watson, comedian and novelist, has a new book out today, called Hotel Alpha. My confession, of course, is that I haven't read it yet (though the publishers are very kindly sending me a copy right now - thanks, guys!), but I do love the idea: it's about a hotel and all the goings-on inside it, in the mode of Vicky Baum's Grand Hotel, or Perec's Life A User's Manual, or, getting all cross-genre, maybe Chris Ware's Building Stories (which you've got to read if you haven't already. I mean it.). Anyway, what caught my interest, and why Joe flagged it up for me, is the extradiegetic bits, or, in non-academic speak, the added extras that exist outside the bound book itself. Watson's written a hundred additional stories to compliment/reinforce/expand the novel in an encyclopaedic way, making it all polyphonic and less teleological and closed-off - which speaks to my PhD research into the short-story cycle. Watson's book isn't a cycle by my definition, but he's interested in what he calls the encyclopaedic novel and this project explores the digital/non-digital world of storytelling in a way that expands the reading experience (though without, say, the more graphically-inclined elements of Geoff Ryman's similar publication, 253). Anyway, it's pretty cool, so to help Mark launch the book, I'm including here his own explanatory afterword:

Hotel Alpha is designed to be read in two stages. There is the novel which you have just finished and, I hope, enjoyed – unless you’re one of those people who always flick to the back first. Then there are one hundred extra stories, which appear on a website: www.hotelalphastories.com. You will find eight of them here, once you turn the page. The extra stories span the same time period as the novel. They shine an alternative light on the plot, show the hidden links between some of its main events, solve mysteries, and give voice to some of the thousands of minor characters and dramas which make up the life of the Hotel Alpha while the main story is playing out. They can be read in any order and in any quantity. Or, of course, you can ignore them altogether – it’s entirely up to you. 
Everyone knows that human stories are always bigger and more complex than they appear – the relationships and con- nections between us all are infinite, and a book can only do so much. The Internet, though, removes the physical limitations of the novel, opening up possibilities that have never before existed for readers and writers. We can now choose how much of a story we want to tell, and how much of it we want to know: in theory we can keep going forever. The one hundred extra stories of Hotel Alpha don’t quite go that far, and you as a reader prob- ably have other plans for the rest of your life. But it’s a start . . . 
Mark Watson, May 2014 

And here's one of those self-same one hundred stories in order to whet your appetite....


Story 31: Alpha Bar, 1971 

‘Cheese!’ 
They pose, eight of the lads, four at the front and four at the back. The famous trophy, full of champagne, on a table in front of them. And crouched down at the front, as if he’d won the thing himself, is Howard York. Bloke whose gaff this is. His wife is pointing the Polaroid at them. 
Since the moment the final whistle went, it’s gone by in a haze. People ruffling his hair, shouting, draping their scarves round his neck. Up the steps to the Royal Box to collect the cup. Lifting it for the whole of Wembley to see. The roar of the fans. The splash of empty seats across half of the stadium, vacated by the other team’s supporters who pissed off home as soon as the game ended. Flags waving, people grabbing him. Finally back in the changing room. A sense of the euphoria already beginning to cool, exhaustion muscling in. The big bath already full of filthy foam. Into the big bath as the kit man handed round cans of beer. Beers in the bath! You know you’ve won the FA Cup when that happens. Even the boss was happy. Even that miserable bastard, happy. 
Into the bath. Shorts off, thrown aside. Quickly under the waterline, feeling the slop of it against his skin. Into the bath. He had to be so careful. He always has to be so careful. Avoiding everyone’s eyes. The paint peeling on the wall; always expected Wembley to be a bit smarter. It’s in surprisingly poor nick. All these thoughts were useful. They took his mind away from Frank, from his long, strong body. From the male flesh all around. Just think of anything else, he told himself. If you ever want to have a career again. If you don’t want someone to break your fucking legs. Don’t look at anyone. Don’t let yourself think about it. 
To get out of the water with an erection, that would be the end of everything. The same day he won the FA Cup. He would be finished. 
‘And one more!’ says the woman, her hair cascading down over her face; she laughs and flicks it out of her eyes and swats it out of the way of the viewfinder. ‘One more, for Howard. He’s always been such a big fan of … of, I’m sorry, what team are you again?’ 
Everyone laughs, including Frank – who normally hates these sort of arseholes, hangers-on, people who attach themselves to a team on the good days. Even Frank. Oh, Frank’s hand on his back. The flash momentarily blinds them, and spots of white light dance in front of his eyes. 
There must come a time, he thinks, when this is normal. When people see it as normal. Two men. There are places where it already happens. There must be so many people out there. If he was standing here in this place, with these blokes, thirty years from now, would it matter if he wanted to touch one of them? There’s no way of knowing. And anyway, he’s here now. In thirty years only his photo will still be here, the photo just taken in which he has forced a convincing smile onto his face; a picture destined to hang in a frame behind the reception desk, preserving for future generations a version of himself that looks perfectly, eternally happy.

So, if you liked that, head over to http://www.hotelalphastories.com to check out the other ninety-nine!

Dubliners 100 review

My review of Dubliners 100, ed. by Thomas Morris (editor of The Stinging Fly) is live now on Bookmunch; I enjoyed this one, and it's a pretty decent intro to contemporary Irish short story writing, alongside the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (ed. Anne Enright) and Town and Country (ed. Kevin Barry) - though the first book you'll want to (re)read after finishing it will undoubtedly be Dubliners itself.

Manchester Review Issue 12

The latest issue of The Manchester Review - Issue 12 - is now live. Edited by me and my PhD supervisor, Ian McGuire, and his co-director of the university's Centre for New Writing, John McAuliffe, it features some really, really, really good prose and poetry. I was particularly delighted to get an unsolicited story through from Helen Cross, whose novel My Summer of Love I adore. If any writers are reading this, please do send us your work: we really do pay attention to the slush pile, and most (not all, but most) of what we publish comes to us this way.

I'm also involved in a critical theory event that's happening tomorrow - July 12th - at Levenshulme Market, in south-east Manchester: I'm part of a loose collective known as Kitchen Table Theory, and we're hosting an open discussion about community and community space from 2pm, though we'll be at the market all day (10am-4pm) passing out flyers. The market itself is worth a visit; this week it's all food and drink, which ought to be a treat on a good summer's day!

Next week, then, I'm off to Lincoln to give a paper at the What Happens Now conference; my presentation will be about short story cycles and genre classification and changing reading and writing strategies as brought about by digital culture: thrilling stuff, eh? Quite a change from what I was doing last week, anyway (photo credit @noteviljoe, my klimbing sensei):


my writing process - blog tour

A new blog post! It's like Christmas around here, only without the snowman (whom, according to my daughter, is the one that brings us all our presents: I believe she gets this, somehow, from Raymond Briggs, but God only knows). Anyway. I've been invited to take part in a bog tour about writing processes by my friend and PhD colleague here at Manchester, the poet Janet Rogerson, whose own contribution to the tour is here. Actually, if you want to know about Janet's PhD experience, seeing as I'm clearly a massive failure when it comes to blogging about it, check this out. Janet's way pithier than me - maybe it's a poetry thing, hey? But, so, read on here if you want to know more about how/why I write.

What am I working on? Well! Because I'm doing a practice-based PhD, I've been working on the same book for the past eighteen months, and will continue to do so for at least another eighteen months, if not longer. It's a book of interrelated short stories, or a short-story cycle, and it's set in contemporary(ish) Manchester and is about the intersecting lives of a group of neighbours. There's all sorts of infidelities and disappointments, and I suppose one of the main themes in there is disconnection, or the way you can perceive yourself as being alone, even if you're in a relationship or surrounded by a community of friends. I'm not sure yet if I'll shove in a glimmer of hope. I probably ought to, right? We'll see.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? I'm not so sure that it does, categorically - these cycles have been around for a while, as have these themes. But while it's not strictly what I'd call formally innovative, it's perhaps not a commonly read or recognised form and so it might appear innovative to the more casual reader. God, that sounds awful, doesn't it? The critical element of my PhD project is partly concerned with historicising this type of construction, and so I'd imagine I've read more short-story cycles than is probably normal. Perhaps my work might be interesting because of the way it's very rooted in its Mancunian setting? Maybe I bring some sort of Irish aesthetic to the North of England? We shall see! It's still a work in progress, so bear with me.

Why do I write what I do? I'm intrigued with the way interconnected stories function, and how that differs from what we might more commonly recognise as a novel, or at least, a novel in the tradition of nineteenth century realism, which is a mode out of which many novelists still seem to prefer to operate. I love short stories: I think we're so brought up on novels that stories can be, especially to occasional readers, an acquired taste, but it's one that I've definitely acquired. I write about fairly grim scenarios most of the time because I find them interesting: how do people cope with difficult or weird circumstances? How to they relate or fail to relate to one another in these situations? But I like a lot of humour, too, and so I try to throw in plenty of funny stuff, for better or worse.

How does your writing process work? Slowly. Very. very slowly. It takes me ages, a month or two, to figure out what I want to write, maybe a horrible couple of weeks or more to get a first draft down (anything between 5,000 and 8,000 words), and then months and months of drafting and redrafting. Maybe halfway through this rewriting process I'll realise what I actually want to write about, or what I ought to be writing about, so there'll be huge changes to make. Sometimes I start with some dialogue or a setting and work a plot out from there. Plotting is my downfall - I struggle to get that right. My PhD supervisors are excellent sounding boards - I'll think I've nailed something and they'll point out that a huge chunk is ill-conceived or redundant, or that a character's motivation is far too unclear, and I'll be back to the drawing board - but they've always been right. It's now February 2014 and I've just finished the eight draft of a story that I started in September 2012, if that gives you an idea of my pace. I remember once reading an interview with somebody, perhaps Alice Munro, who said they took six months to do a story, and I thought, huh, that's not very fast - right now six months seems super zippy and efficient. I have a bunch of stories for this book - six or seven - that I've been working on since 2012 or early/mid 2013, and I know it'll be a long time yet before any of them are ready. I've got my critical thesis to do (which is what's taking up most of my time now, and will do until this summer at least), and various part-time jobs, plus a home life with a small child, but it's not really a matter of time constraints; I think it just takes me a while to process, internally, what a story requires. Often if I'm spending all my time on a piece, especially in the earlier stages, it becomes hard to get an overview, so doing it in fits and starts and pondering a lot in the interim can be quite helpful. Having these excellent readers helps. I know I'm getting better at it, and I'm coming to the conclusion that I need to take more time at the start figuring out the core ideas and development of the story before I put pen to paper. The blank page bit is the worst. And I can't start unless I've got a good scene or a great line in mind right from the off. Starting wrong-footed is a nauseating feeling. But knowing what needs to be said and paring away at it until you've drawn that out - that's brilliant. I wish I had a drawer full of dozen of completed works, but, as we've established, I'm very slow and I'm very fussy. I kind of hope that the result will be, if not a very prolific output, a solid and coherent one.

Have I put you off yet? I'm supposed to nominate three other writers to follow in my footsteps and carry this blog tour onwards, but I'm doing it wrong and just naming one: Claire Snook, my former MA classmate and excellent friend, a great writer who gets more work done in a month than I do in a year, and who has a brilliant agent, to boot. She'll post her entry next Monday (March 10th), so keep your eyes on this space.

Gary Shteyngart review

My review of Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure is live at Bookmunch.

Susan Minot review

My review of Susan Minot's Thirty Girls is live at Bookmunch.