Tag Archives: novels

Flights of Fancy

To date I have written 13 novels over the course of my writing life. It is interesting to look back and consider this harvest of the imagination

The amazing covers by Steve Hambidge for The Windsmith Elegy (vols 1-5) https://www.behance.net/crookedkm/projects

Flights of Fancy: My Novels

To date I have written 13 novels over the course of my writing life. It is interesting to look back and consider this harvest of the imagination – what connects them, if anything? Certainly a strong strain of the Fantastic – most are explicitly within the Fantasy or Science Fiction category, with just a couple of anomalies: my first novel, which could be categorised as Weird or Timeslip; and my latest, which is my most ‘mimetic’ to date – being set entirely in this world, with no element of the Fantastic (except perhaps through the combination of extraordinary characters in an extraordinary place – albeit both within the purview of the possible). From the very first a strong sense of place has been a key element of my fiction. I am also inspired by myths, legends, folk tales, and folk songs, so what I call ‘mythic resonance’ permeates all my work (indeed, I called my Fantasy novels ‘Mythic Reality’). Nature has always been more than a backdrop in my writing – an ecoliteracy informs them all. And increasingly, there is a keen sense of the Climate Emergency – this has manifested most tangibly in Black Box and Thunder Road. Finally, I think I am drawn to hybrid, marginalised voices – characters caught between worlds in different ways. These are the voices that interest me the most.

So far, only 8 have been published (one as an interactive novel), although my SF novel, Black Box, has manifested as an audio drama via Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. Hopefully, the others will see the light of day at some point. Otherwise, to keep writing them without guarantee of publication is a kind of madness – I call it my Obsessive Narrative Disorder. I just can’t stop writing. I have so many ideas, and novels just pounce on me and don’t let me go until I’ve written them. With my current novel, The Bath Circulating Library Society, I have set up what I hope to be a long-running series – I have several plot ideas already sketched out, enough probably to keep me busy until the end of my days. Let’s hope I get a publisher for them soon!

The Ghost Tree (1994 – unpublished)

The Long Woman (2004, Awen) – Arts Council Award winner

Windsmith (2006, Awen)

The Sun Miners (2007, Awen)

The Well Under the Sea (2008, Awen)

The Burning Path (2010, Awen) – El Gouna Writing Residency, Egypt

This Fearful Tempest (2012, Awen)

Black Box (2016) – winner of the One Giant Write competition run by Literature Works; adapted into an audio drama for Alternative Stories and Fake Realities.

The Knowing: a Fantasy (2018) – my PhD novel, published by the University of Leicester, via Open Access, as a hardbound dissertation, and website: www.thesecretcommonwealth.com (2nd draft written as a writer-in-resident at Hawthornden International Writers Retreat, December 2015).

Thunder Road (2020) available to read via this website

Hyperion (2021, available via Tales Writer on App Store and Google Play)

The Bath Circulating Library Society (2021) – long-listed for the Bath Novel Award

The Bath Circulating Library Society is a prequel to an intended novel series, the first volume of which has been written (completed in 2020).

Kevan Manwaring, 17 October 2021

The Illustrated Novelist

lightwomanshadowmanbyKEVANMANWARING 2017

Illustrations based upon Robert Kirk’s 17th Century notebooks by Kevan Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

 

I have long been an appreciator of illustrated text. Being a writer coming from a Fine Art background, this is perhaps not surprising, as I enjoying doing both – playing with words and images in my stories and drawings – revelling in the incredible freight and flexibility of letters and the infinite potential of the line, the mark.

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Motif for ‘Bethany’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

From Palaeolithic cave art onwards we have illustrated our lives, representing symbolically our fears and dreams, our gods and demons, or simply the miracle of our existence: the handprint that says I am here, I exist, I belong. We have used art to express what is significant to us. For a long time art was used to express the Divine, but also to make sacred narratives relatable: in exquisite illuminated manuscripts, in beautiful Books of Hours, in the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals, in the illustrations of canonical texts. Of course art was also used to convey power and status, in the iconography of heraldry, coats of arms, portraits of the wealthy and what they owned: landscapes were as much about who owned them as what they contained. The frame did not simply delineate the edge of the picture, it implied ownership, the border of privilege, the ha-ha divide between the haves and have-nots.

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Motif for ‘Molly’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

With the printing press came a new democracy that allowed, ultimately, art and text to be read, shared and owned by all sections of society.  The first illustrated books were still the luxuries of the elite, but as printing presses became more efficient and economical handbills, chapbooks and broadside ballads started to be disseminated from street-corners, often with crude, but thrilling illustrations recycled for different contexts – a new song, the latest scandal, a bloody execution. Penny Dreadfuls and illustrated newspapers fed the public’s appetite for text and image. The comic strip, commonly a syndicated three-panel trick, was born. It developed into the comic book and the so-called graphic novel, now glossy full-colour affairs – largely the flagships of lucrative franchises (with shining exceptions from the smaller presses and up-and-coming artists) – but when I started  reading them, they were black and white weeklies, printed on newsprint quality paper, costing a few pennies and often seen as ‘throw-away’. Fortunately I realised their worth and avidly collected them, building up my own personal library.

FBI AGENT

FBI motif, K. Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

My obsession with comics lasted for a couple of decades, and for a while I had ambitions to become a writer or illustrator of them, but I developed a taste for more sophisticated texts, while not losing my enjoyment of illustration. My own idiosyncratic exploration of this form has led to personal favourites: the luminous ‘songs’ of William Blake; Aubrey Beardsley’s La More D’Arthur; Gustav Doré’s Paradise Lost, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Don Quixote; illustrated Fairy Tales, especially the work of Arthur Rackham; John Tenniel’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the magnificent editions produced by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press; and later, the Hogarth Press – John Stanton Ward’s Cider with Rosie. The simple charm of Antoine de St-Exupery’s The Little Prince; Mervyn Peake’s fabulously grotesque Gormenghast trilogy; Tolkien’s self-illustrated The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Then, as my tastes developed I fell in love with the watercolours of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (Paper Tiger); the nightmarish art of Dave McKean (who as well as providing the cover art for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, also collaborated with Iain Sinclair of tomes such as Slow Chocolate Autopsy); Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would not be the cult classic it is without the wild art of Ralph Steadman; Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls for me will always be the defined by the art of Jim Kay; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, by the intricate motifs which emulate those of Lyra’s golden compass, the Alethiometer. When I read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, it was Charles Vess’ illustrations which enchanted me as much as the story. It created a certain aesthetic, evocative of Victorian classics, as did Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, a homage to the adventure novels of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. Visual ‘furniture’ has been deployed in fiction since experiments in the novel form began – it is there in Laurence Sterne’s 1759 Tristram Shandy with its blacked out pages, in Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), and can be found in books as recent as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (which uses an app with visual representations of narrative pathways) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (both 2016). I knew I would always revel in these paratextual elements.

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Motif of ‘Clarence & Constance’, The Knowing 2017

And so it is small wonder that I decided to incorporate them into my PhD novel project, The Knowing – A Fantasy. This decision was influenced by not only my lifelong ‘guilty pleasure’ but by archival research. Upon examining the primary source material of Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister of Aberfoyle’, I discovered within his notebooks remarkable illustrations (see my blog on ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’). Kirk also owned an exquisitely illustrated Book of Hours. Discovering the fact that the young Kirk was prone to doodling not only ‘humanised’ him, it also revealed the workings of his subconscious – a gift to a novelist attempting to bring him alive. He became more than just a formidable minister of the Presbytery, he became flesh and blood. By copying his artwork, mark by mark, I felt as though I was slipping into his skin.

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Motif of ‘Margaret’, Robert Kirk’s 2nd wife, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

And so, inspired by this, and by creative decisions around how to best present a multi-linear narrative, I decided to create a series of motifs to represent the different ‘voices’ within the text. These will provide signposts for the reader, to help them navigate around it. In the e-book version, by clicking on the embedded motif you can be taken to the ‘side-text’ (if you wish); then, when you’re done, you can return to the main text by clicking on the plectrum (which represents my main character, the musician Janey McEttrick). On our computers and phones we are used to using similar icons in the form of apps and tiles on our desktop. An unobtrusive motif can adorn a block of text like an illuminated capital in a manuscript, and it is up to the reader whether to explore or not. This feels like a more elegant solution than footnotes (which threatened to overwhelm the otherwise marvellous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel), and I liked the idea of hypertext links being akin to faerie portals, taking the reader-traveller to a different reality. In the end I created about 20 motifs for The Knowing, enjoying the process of selecting a suitable motif to epitomize each key character. This chimed deeply with a central plot device I deploy (a series of heirlooms which allow my protagonist to connect vicariously to her ancestors). I also created a frontispiece and an ‘eye’ motif, based upon one of Kirk’s drawings. The latter also adorns the cover and sums up the insight and illumination of those with the ‘knowing’ of the title – Second Sight.

KIRK EYE R

Kirk’s eye of illumination, based upon an original in his 17th C. notebooks, by K. Manwaring 2017

So, with the book complete, I can add The Knowing – A Fantasy to a list of my books I have illustrated: Spring Fall (1998); Green Fire (2004); The Bardic Handbook (2006); Oxfordshire Folk Tales (2012); Northamptonshire Folk Tales (2014) and Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (2017), as well as a continuing series of literary walks for the Cotswold Life magazine. My love affair with text and image looks likely to continue as I continue to discover new and wonderful examples and practitioners, and I hope in the future to collaborate with other artists and writers.

kirk grave detail

Detail from the grave of Robert Kirk, by K. Manwaring 2017

Kevan Manwaring Copyright ©2017

 

The Characters are in Charge

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One day a tall red-head with striking eyes and a steel string guitar walked into my head. Her name was Janey McEttrick and she demanded to have her story told. She lived in an airstream trailer in the backcountry near Asheville, North Carolina. She was of Scottish descent (on her mother’s side) and had inherited more than just the red hair from her Celtic ancestors. The gleam in her eye suggested she knew more than her hedonistic ‘trailer-trash’ lifestyle suggested – far more.

When a character barges into your imagination like this you know you have no choice but to listen, to take notes, to do what you’re told. They are a gift. If a character is rebellious, subverting your carefully structured plot and all the nice plans you’ve laid out for them, then you know they have a pulse. It has been said that a novel is a war between characters versus plot. In that tension the narrative is forged. Too much of either and you’ll either end up with a rambling, indulgent mess – a series of character studies in search of a story;  or a soul-less checklist of plot-points populated with flat characters.

But I have often found that characters appear first and generate story. If they have a strong line of desire, hampered by doubts, fears and other attendant demons, then you can pretty much set them off and see where they take you. The parameters of your story world are usually limited by what you’re interested in, can be bothered to research, to ‘fill in’. The further away from that locus of interest, the hazier it becomes. The edges of that world are often unconvincingly blurry. Your writer’s imagination is unable to render it in sufficient detail. The character runs into a blank wall.

So, your protagonist – the one that gatecrashed your head (it’s normally them I find who are the culprits, rather than the minor characters) needs to meet other characters, to come alive, to be challenged, tempted, tormented, helped and harried. If you have a ‘mouthpiece’ characters that represents your world-view, then you need others who diametrically oppose and challenge that paradigm; you need foils; you need allies and enemies. Your protagonist needs friends, perhaps a lover or companion, and some kind of family. Suddenly your novel is starting to look crowded. Your lovely writer’s mansion has been squatted by a colourful rabble , who throw parties at all hours, graffiti the walls, and do unspeakable things with your objet d’art and upholstery. At some point you will have to put your foot down and put your house in order. The ‘creative’ mess will need tidying up, but it’s often only from that fecund chaos that the good stuff emerges. Too much control too soon can be fatal. Writers who impose martial law on their imagination – making characters toe the line – will create arid scenes empty of organic warmth. A little bit of anarchy is good for a story, if you want it to surprise and delight you. And if it doesn’t surprise and delight you, it’s unlikely to do that for the reader.

Where these characters come from is often a mysterious process – some kind of alchemy perhaps between people you know, people you wish you knew or had known, parts of yourself, the wunderkammer of your memories, your subconscious, your higher self, shadow, ancestors – even ones you’re not aware of… smushed with books, movies, music, art, places, people-watching, day-dreams and fantasies. Unless you’re doing a Creative Writing course of some kind, you normally don’t have to do an autopsy. All that matters is they live and breathe, that they speak and act, feel and think in accordance with their character – that’s the prime directive for any novelist. Yes, you can play God – but once you’ve created your world, don’t be a Jehovah. Let your characters get on with their lives. You have to let them make mistakes, fuck up, get themselves up the spout or bumped off. They need to learn in the school of hard knocks you’ve created for them – even if at times you wish you could give them a message, a helpful hint. But even if you do, most would ignore it or notice it. It is enough of a miracle that they exist at all. And we pass by signs and wonders every day.

 

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an e-book on 20th March. If you would like to reserve a copy or review it, please get in touch.

Words on Fire

Words on Fire: Book Launch Waterstones 21st May

Words on Fire Tour #1: Ola and I launch our books at Waterstones, Bath 21 May 2011

Last night saw the culmination of two writer’s journeys as Ola (my friend from Germany, now living in Bath) and I launched our books (The Firekeeper’s Daughter; & The Burning Path, respectively) at Waterstones, Bath – the final event of the ‘Awen Spring’ programme, which saw 6 new titles being published over 4 separate events these last 4 months – quite a start to the year! My book began in 2008 – when I wrote the first draft. I worked on the second draft last May, as Writer-in-Residence in El Gouna; and the third in Italy this April. It is the fourth part of my fantasy epic, The Windsmith Elegy, begun in 2002 while a student on the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. With the publication of the final volume next year (touchwood) it’ll be the end of a ten year project – my magnum opus will weigh in at half a million woods. The Burning Path is the slimmest volume of the series, but has taken me the longest to complete – partly due to other commitments (I have written two non-fiction books during 2008-2011: The Way of Awen; & Turning the Wheel, out later this year – as well as a collection of poetry, and contributor to other anthologies). But it has also been a hard book to write because of challenging personal circumstances and a wish to achieve an austere aesthetic inspired in part by a quote from Antoine de St Exupery: ‘Perfection then, is finally achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’ This is what I aspired to – it’s harder to write a (good) short book than a long one. Quality, not quantity. Moving from my home of 14 years in Bath late last year was very much a physical manifestation of this ethos – about letting go, and only keeping what you really need. My book’s main theme concerns the idea: what are you prepared to lose for that which you love? Well, I have made several sacrifices in the writing of this book – not least the sheer graft of its composition and production (for little or no reward – or guarantee of one). But yesterday this theme took on a tangible aspect as I rushed back from an OU meeting in Milton Keynes in time for the launch at Waterstones, Bath, that evening – I was going so fast on my motorbike that my panniers blew away! I was twenty miles down the road before I realised – like Edward Lear’s man from Bicester (below) – retraced my steps but couldn’t find them. They contained all my camping gear which I was planning to use that night, staying over at my friend Marko’s birthday bash (a legendary gathering of Irish musicians and characters). But I had to cut my losses, and put the ‘pedal to the metal’ to get to the launch on time, rushing down the M4. The gods were with me and I made it – just in time – arriving bang on 7pm. a crowd had gathered – probably wondering where I was. I quickly got changed and introduced the evening and Ola’s book – she took over and did a great talk and reading, answering some interesting questions from the floor afterwards. Then it was my turn – I summoned some energy, some awen, from somewhere – and introduced my novel. I read an extract: ‘The Sandsweepers of Assekrem’ – and fielded some questions. Afterwards, we toasted the books with some Lindisfarne Mead. We did it! It had been quite a journey for both of us – Ola’s first book, my um fifteenth? It doesn’t seem to get any less stressful – no matter how well it is all planned, it always seems to end up ‘hot water and towels’ in the middle of the night. A book launch can be a somewhat fraught affair – exhausting and exhilarating – as the proud parent brings a new creation into the world! This particular ‘labour’ was relatively smooth – thanks to all the midwives! Bidding a farewell to the fellowship heading in different directions, we decamped to the Circus for some galvanising tea and cake before heading off into the dark wilds of Somerset for Marko’s birthday bash – when we finally found it (The King’s Head in Coleford, a pub lost in its own timewarp) the party was in full swing. There was a lively Irish session in process, taking everyone away with the fairies. I gifted Marko a copy of Ola’s book and he orderd me a jar of the dark stuff. Never had a pint of Guinness tasted so good! We toasted the man himself, and our achievement. It had been quite a day. Words on Fire tour had begun!

 

*There was an old soldier of Bicester,
Was walking one day with his sister,
A bull, with one poke,
Toss’d her into an oak,
Before the old gentleman miss’d her.