The official website of Scottish Author David F Porteous
Almost every word you ever read was a coward. You write enough words and you get to know them for what they are; their character. Words are pliable, twisty, squirmy little bastards you can’t play chess with. Some are glass fragile, facetted, intriguing and pointing in a dozen different directions. The worst of them are smoke, holding shape and meaning for a second, but changeling like a perjurer’s testimony.
A good word means only one thing and means it only once – he is focussed in one direction and means to expend himself in one purpose. A good word is a punch and should carry all your weight; the lean, the step-in – elbow up!
A good word is something better than fearless: a good word is brave.
Vasily Smyslov, the Soviet Grandmaster, used to twist his chess pieces after moving them, screwing them into the board, daring his opponent to take them; putting up a palisade of oblique bishops and cardinal rooks. And the ambition of anyone who would call themselves a writer must be to put words down with equal conviction. To dare time – our enemy – to take their meaning.
But the brave words perish first. The unexpected. The portmanteau. The found sound. Time melts their faces. And the ones that remain are the reworked words, like train timetables – all gloss and promises that won’t be kept in this country. Survivors, with all the guilt of the colaborator.
Almost every word you ever read was a coward.
For posterity, I include the mock graduation speech I prepared for a contest offered by American author of young adult things to read, Maureen Johnson. In Britain we don't have the tradition of students delivering speeches, but if we did, and if I'd given one, this would not be it.
It's my belief that after submitting this, Maureen blocked me on Twitter.
It was either this speech or the pictures of me wearing only a confused expression.
In either case, here it is.
I have watched you prepare, these last four years, for the war that is to
come. And I am not impressed.
I, who have laid waste to worlds more ancient by far than the tarnished
bauble of this [check note cards] Earth, have seen great civilizations train
their young in a thousand ways. Yet none, I think will prove as inadequate as
Knowing as you must that our attack shall come from the edge of space –
where, even now, our mighty fleet assembles – you must surely realise that your science, your engineering, your mathematics are woeful by comparison to ours. Your study of the history of art seems pointless; almost a parody of reason.
Your art we shall burn – except for the items you have already burned as
artistic statements – these we shall reassemble using advanced technology and put on display. You shall all be made to see these displays. Tickets will be expensive. And the lines shall be long.
Only your swim team seems prepared for the psychological warfare we shall
unleash on you, when our timed-release penis-shrinking drugs kick-in, just
before the Fourth of July weekend.
You believe that because you have endured these scant four years that your
works shall be proud and that in this glorious summer the sting of death will
not touch you.
You are mistaken.
We shall deprive you of all those things you hold most dear. Holiday sales at
electrical goods stores, the beach, apple pie – including combination fruit pies
that contain apple, really good drugs, Dancing With The Stars and almost all
The only place left to eat will be Wendy’s – and not the good Wendy’s, the
And once we have crushed your spirits, we shall install a Vichy government to rule you harshly – as is our tradition. To prevent any feelings of sympathy,
this government will be made up entirely of another species. In Earth’s case,
rule of the planet will be ceded to the bees, and their powerful stings shall
keep you in fear, because that thing about bees only being able to sting you
once and then they die? That’s bullshit. Most bees can sting you as much as they like.
And they like to do it a lot.
Also, the bees who rule you will be Africanised.
Now please stand while Danny plays your new national anthem on the kazoo.
Very exciting day today.
The Goodreads page for The Death of Jack Nylund has been created showing the fantastic cover designed Rob Moran and the full blurb outlining the story. A dedicated page on this website and some preview chapters will follow in the coming weeks, but I added it to Goodreads first so anyone interested can add it as a "to read" book and reviewers can rate it in advance. Would love to hear your feedback.
Release date is still the first of October. Expect more :)
My second book - The Death of Jack Nylund - will be released on Kindle and in print 1st October 2012. This will be the first of nine novellas in the Gods & Monsters series.
The Death of Jack Nylund follows US Federal Marshal Clay Falk and private investigator Walter Black as they move from different sides of the country searching for Jack Nylund - who is lost in all the ways a man can be. Set in an alternative 1922 where the ancient oligarchs work in shadow to rule mankind, and war against each other for wealth and power, The Death of Jack Nylund brings the horror of H P Lovecraft to the criminal world of Raymond Chandler and George V Higgins.
Expect more information about The Death of Jack Nylund as publication date approaches. But for now you can check out the Map for a few location-specific paragraphs from the new book and scan the Wurdle for character names and key words.
Exciting times :)
Singular was finished about a year ago. I always say the best way to appreciate a book is by reading all of the words in the book in sequential order. But a close second is reading only the most common 100 words in the book, as a big mashed-up pile on a page. Enter Wordle.net - one of my favourite free text summary tools.
Now you can, by looking at this simple image, identify the names of the key characters in Singular and see that I have quite the passion for similie. I like like like a man who likely has issues with the word love.
I follow Tim Ferris on Twitter, because this time last year I harboured a secret belief that I too could transform myself with kettle bells and roughage. A successful non-fiction writer and life-guru, Ferris occasionally posts writing-related things and so my interest in him out-lasted my interest in combination vitamin supplements.
This is all preamble, but he posted a link to an article about the value of classics and said that he wouldn’t read any new books for a while. The author of that article made the point that people don’t make the effort with classics because they’re difficult, though ultimately that much more rewarding and worthy than new books.
This put a bee in my coif and I’ve been twitching about it since. Old books are better. New books are too rooted in the now, too trendy, too blah. Whereas an old book is a memorable evening of dining and dancing with an elegant, thoughtful lover – a new book is a hand job in the back of Hyundai: immediately satisfying in a very unsatisfying way. Like as not you’ve heard this argument before. Like as not you’ve heard very smart people agree with it.
I’d recently treated myself to a Kindle and decided that I’d read a few classics – by which I mean free books out of copyright – which I knew by reputation by experiencing them in other media. A few years ago the BBC did a wonderful costumed adaptation of Tom Jones: A Foundling. A thundering, rollicking story full of sex and off-colour humour. I was looking forward to Tom Jones the novel as much as a coach load of elderly ladies on a trip to Vegas look forward to Tom Jones the singer.
I was disappointed. The language in Tom Jones is still entirely accessible despite being more than 250 years old, but it was about as badly written as any book I’ve ever picked up. I sashayed through the first oddball chapter where Henry Fielding berates the critics history has forgotten for opinions they haven’t expressed yet and pushed into the book expecting a little more focus and directness.
I was disappointed. Imagine if you could load sentences into a shotgun and fire them at a page to form paragraphs – that’s Fielding. And indeed most of his contemporaries. The effective, direct structuring of English was yet to emerge and it was perfectly normal for novelists and essayists to wander with the same deliberate purpose found in cats chasing butterflies.
Skip ahead a century and a half to Oscar Wilde – a man better quoted than read – and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde seems to have written a novel only as a way to link together his witty remarks, which are in concentration actually rather annoying and clearly of the same form.
A few years back an author tried sending in the subtly altered books of Jane Austen to publishers and was baffled by the response he got – nobody wanted them. I was less baffled. As far as I was concerned that response was inevitable because, while the books are a delight, they are read today not because of their literary merit but because of the strength of the Austen brand. (Mark Twain, most famously, was not a fan of Austen’s style or characterisation).
The difference between old books and new isn’t just the language and it’s entirely possible for a book written rather in arcane English to be published and be successful – such as the unexpected noughties hit Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. But Clarke has a modern – and better – understanding of the mechanisms of fiction than any of her influences. The book is a success not because it reads a bit like Dickens, but because it reads like Dickens would write a book today.
The snobbery of declaring that all the good books were written before we were born and that all of modern literature is trivial is manifestly false. There were contemporaries of Aristotle who felt that all art and reason belonged to a previous age and every generation has been awash with people ready to dismiss to the present. The truth is that modern books aren’t just the equal of the works of previous centuries – they are objectively better. An Austen book submitted today should be rejected by a publisher and there is no classic book that would not benefit from an editor and another draft. Pretending that it’s somehow noble to plough through language abandoned for its uselessness is silly and does considerable disservice to the current generation of writers.
"It's a very small room," he said. "Watch out for the light when we go in".
The room is at the top of Central Library in Edinburgh, a George Washington Brown building constructed eccentrically with Carnegie money in the late nineteenth century. It is an office that would adequately accommodate four people so long as none of them were trying to run a photographic studio.
I'm to be part of a series - authors who have done readings at the library. Those already shot include Ian Rankin and Alasdair Gray - who earlier in the day won the Saltire Society's Book of the Year Award, declined the honour, and was given it anyway. It's an exhibition years in the making and I'm sure whether I actually feature in the final line-up will depend substantially on the sales of the second book.
With the umbrella-sized battery of light tubes a few feet from my face, I adopt the pose that all previous sitters have adopted; turned slightly away, but eyes toward the camera. I'm repeatedly told to open my eyes wide, because as it turns out I've been squinting since the mid-80s.
All of this is a prelude to the event itself - my first public reading and a discussion of what it's like to have written and published your first novel. Certain fathoms below the microstudio the guests are assembling in a basement space, expecting to be entertained. I feel like I felt when I did stand-up almost a decade ago - nervous and powerful, like I'm carrying a static charge that makes all my hair stand up.
"Have a look," the other of the pair of photographers bids me and I shuffle around the equipment to peer at a Mac screen. The photo itself is very good, but is let down by the subject.
"I'd be grateful," I say, "if you could trim it so you can't see the contour of my man boob".
The first photographer nods soberly, adding, "Don't worry: we've done this
Mark Douglas-Home and I pass in the green room as he goes to have his picture taken next. He's the other name on the bill and by far the more credible - former editor of the Glasgow Herald and possessed of enough sense to write a crime novel; you know, something people actually read.
I'm presented to the event chair - Scottish veteran journalist Jackie McGlone, who is an immediately appealing mix of Muriel Spark and Mary Portas. I try to correct a few details in the biography she's been supplied with, but she already knows; she's done her research.
When Mark returns, the three of us are mic'ed-up and we all firmly express no preference as to where we sit.
"I'm sure I have a good side," I say. "I just can't tell which one it is".
We laugh, but I'm not writing that one down. Eventually we settle on me on Jackie's right, Mark on her left and descend to the basement where the audience is waiting, the lights are dimmed and the microphones go live.
A few weeks ago the http://www.eastlothiancourier.com/ asked me to write their weekly column "Why I Love East Lothian". This doesn't appear in the electronic version, but I'm able to reproduce it here. This is my original version, which was very slightly changed for the print edition.
I cannot separate East Lothian from my childhood; for me the towns and landscapes are as much memory as brick and weather.
On a stretch of summer-crowded beach past North Berwick I lost a dog for an anxious hour. On the playground of Cockenzie Primary I lost a square yard of skin from my knees (over several years). Likely I’ve forgotten as much as I remember, but some things remain vivid to all my senses.
I can still feel a child’s hands – my hands – pressed to my ears to block the guttural roar of planes soaring overhead at East Fortune. And on an occasional visit to the Museum of Flight, peering on tiptoes into the cockpit of a Vickers Supermarine Spitfire.
But usually we went to East Fortune because of my grandmother. A renowned – and self-acknowledged – raker and hoarder, she found a unique happiness in trawling through the stalls at the Sunday Market. The journey down winding country roads in my grandfather’s orange Skoda was a weekly event and nothing at the Museum of Flight was ever so majestic as my grandmother returning home from the hunt with a clutch of bargains.
When I think about East Lothian as a whole, it’s the view from a car window along that route.
Being from a large close-knit family on my mother’s side, I was never more than six feet from a cousin growing up. We were always playing in a street unsullied by speed bumps, making noise that today people would phone the council to complain about. We had impossibly long summer days entirely without rain and as much nostalgia as we could carry.
I got my first job in 1996 working for RBS at South Gyle. If the tea hadn’t come out of a machine, I would have spent that summer making tea. Instead my inconsiderable skills were employed in collecting the tea from the machine and bringing it to people. My boss, Edinburgh born and raised, referred to East Lothian as “the sticks”. Until then I don’t think it had occurred to me that living elsewhere would be a different experience. Edinburgh was on the other end of every bus route – there wasn’t even passport control between these two foreign lands divided by custom, tradition and language.
I love Edinburgh, I work there and during the Festival there’s no better place on Earth. But it isn’t home and it doesn’t have a monopoly on culture. The growth in local arts and community events – like the Fringe by the Sea happening in North Berwick all this week – has made this an even more vibrant and interesting place to live.
East Lothian is relaxed, the people have more time to be friendly, each village has its own character and around every corner I find a memory and something new. That’s why I love East Lothian.
Really nice piece in this week's East Lothian Courier about me and the book. If you didn't already know a bit about how Singular got started then it's a pretty good intro.
I'm now on Goodreads, which seems like a great way to share reviews and current reads. If you're reading or if you've read Singular and you're on Goodreads, then let me know.
Also, quick reminder that tomorrow is the very last day you can "like" Singular on Facebook for a chance to win the proof copy (signed - try and stop me). Links in the bar above.
"Mr. Porteous manages to blend science ficiton with a dose of sharp humor and pokes at some of the other areas of the science fiction world. The book is a nice blend of both the real and the surreal world"
Read Rick's full review on his website. (He'll also be giving a copy away at some point).
Where Am I?
dfpiii.com is the official website of David F Porteous. Use the tabs to learn more about David, his books: Singular and The Death of Jack Nylund, or read his blog.
(<<< The blog is over there).