Writing about writing

Cormac McCarthy

I’m reading McCarthy’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ from his majestic ‘The Border Trilogy’ for the second time; this is unusual. I don’t normally go back; there is so much to read and time flies by; if by fifty pages in I’m not enjoying it, then it’s time to move on.

Re-reading McCarthy is quite another matter; it’s as exciting – wrong word – entrancing – is better – the second time around. His work proves that to have great stories one doesn’t always need to obsess about plot. This isn’t to say that his plots aren’t important; it is to say that there’s more to great writing than getting from A to Z; it is to say that the experience of reading is as – more? – important; it is to say that the journey is what truly matters.

When I’m reading McCarthy I’m transported to another time and place that is depicted with such beauty and fashioned from ‘ordinary’ words. What is sublime is the conjunction of those words that make those places and people real in my imagination. His poetic rendering of experience transforms ‘description’ into the deeply personal, allowing my imagination to run at full throttle; allowing this reader to be enmeshed with the experience of the characters.

There is so much more to say about his work and I’ll come back to that another time. For the moment I just want to acknowledge the immense debt I owe him as I realise that the book I’m currently writing – unlike all my others – is indebted to what he has opened up for me. I can’t remember who said it but it’s true that you can’t write unless you read and reading McCarthy is inspirational. So what you may finally read in a couple of years, when it’s done, will be a book completely unlike his but completely mine because of him and not just because of punctuation!

25th May 2018

I’d like to share a few thoughts about John Williams‘ novel ‘Stoner’. There is an intensity and a terrifying sense of claustrophobia in this extraordinary novel. It is, of course, a tragedy, As such Stoner’s journey is inevitable – but no less moving for that. That he seeks love and eventually both finds and loses it is to be expected – what is not expected is the quality if the prose. There is an attention to evocative detail and the experience of ‘place’ that is truly beautiful. One feels that every word has been carefully judged and made a servant to the purpose of enmeshing us, trapping us, within the life within which Stoner acquiesces, fights, survives and surrenders. It is a profoundly sad book – it made me weep. But it is also a book that celebrates the human spirit and its refusal to bend to an idiotic world. I suppose it’s also a book that makes me think – ‘no bloody way’ – and that’s good, even though, unlike Stoner, I’m not trapped as he is.


I’ve recently finished reading William McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’ trilogy. He’s regarded as the ‘founder’ of Scottish ‘noire’ crime fiction – this may be so but he’s much more important than that. The quality and detail of his imaginative writing is wonderful. His observation and humour are compelling and his depiction of a world unseen by the casual visitor to Scotland’s past and present is a revelation. In the first 2 volumes (‘Laidlaw’ & ‘The Papers of Tony Veitch’) of the trilogy the hero – Laidlaw – is viewed from an objective point of view with an all-seeing and understanding narrator. The third volume – ‘Strange Loyalties’ – is written from Laidlaw’s own perspective. The shift, at first, is disorienting but ultimately utterly satisfying and increases the potency of the first two books. McIlvanney’s writing in these 3 books should not be missed – not just by fans of detective fiction but all those who enjoy the very best of contemporary fiction whatever the genre.

Quotations – answers

  • “Arguing with a dead man in a lavatory is a claustrophobic experience.” Ian McEwan in ‘Sweet Tooth’.
  • “Writing is my chief means of communicating with myself …” Elizabeth Jane Howard.
  • “Interesting verbs are seldom interesting.” Jonathan Franzen.
  • “No one reads a book to get to the middle.” Mickey Spillane.
  • ‘Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!’ Joyce Carol Oates
  • “Mind is like a parachute – it doesn’t work if it’s not open.” Frank Zappa
  • ” … a snail licks a thousand tits gushing the pope-king’s blue piss …: Joan Miro 1938 – being part of the title of a painting
  • “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” Virginia Woolf “Orlando”
  • “The Church is a dead telephone; even though the people know better, they pick it up and listen.” Martin Cruz Smith “Tatiana”