Tuesday, 11 December 2012

I Love the Smell of Dystopia in the Morning

We all know the set-up; the world has gone tits-up and our protagonist has to battle the dictators, cameras, crazies and brain-washed nay-sayers until he or she can find a way out, away or underground to the safety of other everyday normals who just want a peaceful life. This is the realm of the dystopian novel, where humans are oppressed for doing human things, and insanity and illogic prevail. We’ve all read them – 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, to name but four. The author selects a problem currently facing society and magnifies it by a million to scare the shit out of us all, but keep us turning the pages, because there is nothing more captivating than the question, ‘What if?

It’s the question that I ask myself every day when I’m writing, but my ‘what ifs’ are usually a lot less political and are full of whimsy, bordering on a carnivalesque kind of appreciation of pushing my characters as far as I can take them (What if she sees Frank Sinatra on the bus, but he isn’t dead; he’s stuck in Brighton and stalked by seagulls? That kind of thing). Mine are the ‘what ifs’ of surreal fantasy, but the dystopian authors employ a far more admirable kind of questioning that brings an eerie realism to what is also essentially fantasy. Their ‘what ifs’ are loaded with an arsenal of terror as we are shown a society that we recognise as our own, destroyed by decisions and issues that we also recognise all too well.

I have thought about writing a dystopian novel. Mine would be set in a world where political decisions are made that change the world while the brain-washed masses are distracted by pointless ‘news’ stories about celebrities and reality TV shows. I also thought about inventing a reality TV show to keep my characters hooked and calling it ‘Big Brother’ – a kind of post-modern, ironic nod to the godfather of dystopia – but surely, it’s too farfetched!

My reason for bringing up the subject of dystopian fiction is that I’ve stumbled upon two more for my list. Yes, there are more than six dystopian novels in the world, but I’ve done some of the classics and now we’re onto the young guns – two indie books and, incidentally, two of the books that made me smile the most this year. I don’t really do book reviews here for three reasons (1. part of my real job is to critique fiction, which makes it feel like work; 2. It makes me feel like I’m back at university: thus, work; 3. I’m selfish), but here’s a quick shout-out so that you can hunt them down and enjoy.

 The first is Dyscountopia by Niccola Grovinci. As the synopsis will tell you, this book is set in a world where the planet has been roofed and taken over by a megastore. Everyone works for the megastore, streets are aisles and there is no alternative way of life. What the synopsis doesn’t tell the reader is how fast paced and original this tale really is, how the language punches you in the face and how the neat little touches almost make this world of consumerism-gone-mad believable.

The second is WindigoSoul by Robert Brumm, which is a mashed-up puppy of a book where over-population has crippled living standards and extraordinary measures are put in place to tip the balance in humanity’s favour. These measures, however, include enforced euthanasia at sixty. Great characters navigate a cracking storyline that really capitalises on this thought-provoking setup and makes for a great read.     

I think that the most terrifying aspect of the genre is not the worlds that are created by these authors, but those characters that have complete faith in their way of life: the unquestioning, ever-obedient inhabitants who believe in their world because those in power have told them to do so. I’m sure that I don’t need to labour the parallels to real life any further…   

Diazepam for Sale, the debut novel by Hayley Sherman is now available on Amazon
Time travel as a cure for depression, the Mods and Rockers on the West Pier, a vengeful Sat Nav lady, a seagull-stalked Frank Sinatra and Diazepam for sale... 
A fairytale for a prozac nation...
Fiction for a world that doesn't behave the way it should....


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Saturday, 17 November 2012

How a Short Story Nearly Saved the World

I finished my story a few days ago. It had taken ten years. I didn’t mean it to take so long, but each word was a matchstick in an elaborate, glorious model, the kind my granddad used to make – a warship or a plane – and I was never very good with my hands.

The first thing I did was read it to my wife; it was the least I could do after ten years, but I could see that her expectations were low. I felt like I was eight years old and showing her a picture I’d painted that she knew wouldn’t fit on the fridge unless she moved her shopping list, dieting mantras, bills and all the other things that were far more important.

My expectations were low, but as I began to read she began to unravel. Just like that. Her arms unfolded, her legs uncrossed, her facial muscles unwound and I swear I could hear her heartbeat marking every other verb. And when I had finished she began to rise, slowly at first. Her feet were barely there; she didn’t use those, but rise she did – out of the chair and into the space above us, swirling and spinning, gliding and swooping, the shopping list and mantras and bills a distant memory.

‘Are you okay, love?’
She didn’t answer at first. She was figure-of-eighting around the lampshade and…was that laughing? It wasn’t like any kind of laughter I’d heard before.
‘Wait there!’ I was beginning to panic. ‘I’ll get you down.’
‘Don’t worry about me. Just open the window.’
And I did and she floated out unlike any butterfly I had ever seen. She swooped and spun and just lay in the sky as if it was where she had always belonged, and then she reappeared at the window, completely unravelled. Didn’t anything matter anymore?

She gathered every part of her face with some effort and said, ‘Tell everyone.’ Then she disappeared again.

I hadn’t receiving a review as good as this in my entire writing career. And from my wife too! So I ran into the street, grabbed the first person I found and after some persuasion, read the story again. As I read he looked as if he might fall asleep, but in a good way, as if he had never been hugged before and I had wrapped my arms around him and told him everything was going to be alright. And then he drifted into the air, peacefully lounging in a bed he never knew he deserved.

And then other people were approaching me to read them the story and before I knew it, the sky was full and I was alone beneath the impossible air show, just looking. What else could I do?

‘Get in the van!’ 
It was as good an option as anything else, so I followed the instruction. Where the van had appeared from, I had no idea, but they were wearing masks and I had seen people like these in films. When these people told you to get in the van you did it and when they told you to remain silent you did that too. The next thing I knew I was being cross-examined in the Ministry of Short Stories. Who knew?

The man was nice.
‘Your story is beautiful.’
‘We’d like to buy it, with your permission. For our…collection.’
‘You like stories?’
‘After a fashion.’ He had a mole, a big mole, the kind of mole you could take a bite out of without affecting its mass.
‘What do you want to do with it?’
‘We could use it to make the world a better place.’ Mole.
‘That sounds nice. I’d quite like to keep it though. What did you say you wanted to do with it?’
‘Add it to our collection.’
‘I guess you have lots of stories here.’ Big mole.
‘Yes and they all serve a purpose.’
‘Like in the street?’
‘After a fashion.’
‘Hmm! Indeed. We can pay you a substantial amount of money.’
I wasn’t really fussed about money. I didn’t like that mole. I didn’t like the collection. But he was nice so I reached into my pocket and handed over the mangled sheet of A4.
He looked surprised.
‘I know it off by heart, you see.’ I offered. ‘We can make the world a better place together.’
And then silence.
‘This presents us with a little problem.’ Mole.
‘What’s that?’
‘Well, let me take this from you.’ He took the story from me, gripping it with tweezers, and then deposited it in some kind of strange plastic bag that I had also seen in films. ‘We’ll talk again, but first I wonder if you’d be interested in reading one of the stories from our collection.’ He used the tweezers again to release another story from another bag and delicately placed it in front of me as if it might explode if he disturbed it too much.
‘Is it a nice story?’
‘After a fashion.’

I unfolded the page and opened my mouth to read the first word.
‘What?’ Mole.
‘I’ll leave you alone to enjoy it.’
I shrugged. He could suit himself. I love a good story and he left the room.
When I was alone again, I settled into my chair. It had to be a good one. Mine had taken ten years to write. This had to be good to make it to the collection, to make it to the Ministry of Short Stories.
‘Once upon a time,’ I began to read.
And that truly was the end.

Diazepam for Sale, the debut novel by Hayley Sherman is now available on Amazon
Time travel as a cure for depression, the Mods and Rockers on the West Pier, a vengeful Sat Nav lady, a seagull-stalked Frank Sinatra and Diazepam for sale... 
A fairytale for a prozac nation...
Fiction for a world that doesn't behave the way it should....


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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Stephen Fry Saved Me… Twice!

This week I have been reading The Fry Chronicles by the eponymous Stephen Fry. I’m not going to review it because, well, it was published two years ago and I think I’ve missed my window. Everything that could possibly be written about it has been written and in far fluffier prose than I could muster with a mouth full of tissue (this isn’t a metaphor; I’ve just been to the dentist – See My Dentist Thinks I’m a Car – and I’m starting to wonder if my tooth mechanic is trying to see just how many teeth he can extract before I start to question his motives). Needless to say, I enjoyed the second instalment of Stephen Fry’s biographical offerings and would highly recommend it. So, why did it take me two years to get around to reading it?

Let me put this in context. I loooved Moab is my Washpot, his early memoir. In fact, I believe that it saved some part of me from shrivelling into the folds of self-shame and disappearing. Here is a book about a young boy becoming a young man whose adolescent wrestling match with himself took him all the way to a young offenders’ institute. There was his genius to cope with (not something I’ve been particularly troubled by), his awkwardness, his compulsion towards mischief, and his sexuality. This was a mixed-up kid, but Stephen Fry the Elder looks back with a soothing message for his former self and for readers.
‘It’s alright!’ he simply states (I’m paraphrasing, of course; why use two words when there is whole thesaurus at hand). ‘It’s alright! Whatever you are, whatever you do, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, it’s going to be alright.’ A simple message, but in the context of a battle with self and sexuality, it was a message that I needed to hear.

I remember word of The Fry Chronicles unleashing itself onto the world two years ago; I put up links on Facebook around the time of my birthday, hoping that an odd sister or aunt might take the hint, and when it didn’t materialise, I resolved to treat myself. Then what happened? Well, it fell out of my head. Two years on and I see a copy in a charity shop. To be honest, as a bestseller, it is a staple of charity shop shelves, but seeing it this time caused a little ripple of excitement. How was the kid getting on at Cambridge and then in the big wide world? How had he become the sumptuous national treasure that we know and love? More importantly, what was his message for me this time and was I ready to hear it? Perhaps I wasn’t two years ago. Perhaps I would have read it with all of the openness of a child being dragged to hear the bla-bla-bla-ness of Sunday mass on a rainy October morning. Isn’t that the way with life? There is a time for everything. This much is obvious, but what is more difficult to understand is that, as human creatures hopping on the burning embers of day-to-day life and wondering where it all might lead, we instinctively stumble upon the information that we most need at just the right time. There is no logic to explain this magic (although the Law of Attraction could sign its name below the miracle). The subconscious is such that at just the exact point that we need to know something (sometimes for our emotional survival) and are capable of absorbing the information, it knocks on the door like an intuitive friend. I’ve been in doctors’ surgeries and found the most apt articles in magazines that I wouldn’t normally touch, speaking directly to me; I’ve bought books because of their interesting titles, not knowing that the information inside was personalised to my specific needs; I’ve turned on the TV at the exact point that a documentary was answering some of the most pressing questions pestering my soul; I read The Fry Chronicles and Stephen Fry saved a part of me for the second time. Not only did he give me something to write about in this week’s blog, but his reassurances have held my hand through these seven days. I’m not quite as candid as Stephen Fry to openly reveal my inner-most revelations publicly, but I thank him for steering me in the right direction and I thank the universe for never disappointing me.

Diazepam for Sale, the debut novel by Hayley Sherman is now available on Amazon
Time travel as a cure for depression, the Mods and Rockers on the West Pier, a vengeful Sat Nav lady, a seagull-stalked Frank Sinatra and Diazepam for sale... 
A fairytale for a prozac nation...
Fiction for a world that doesn't behave the way it should....


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Sunday, 30 September 2012

Diazepam for Sale

With mere weeks before the publication of my first novel, Diazepam for Sale, I thought it wise to include a blurb and extract in this blog. I'm so excited that I might just explode... I hope you enjoy it.

Emma used to be happy; now she looks as if life has fallen on her from a twelfth-floor window and she forgot to put out her arms to catch it. She used to be creative but now she can barely imagine a sunny day in the rain. She is young, beautiful and engulfed in the creative vibes of Brighton, but she divides her time between sitting on her own private pebble indentation on the beach and watching the dregs of afternoon TV – chewing gum for the mind.

With her doctor refusing to offer her a prescription for anything other than condescension, she is offered an unusual cure for her depression from a man who promises to help her wear life like a pair of loosely fitting loungey pants. And so begins her bizarre journey into a past that belongs to someone else and a present that she wishes didn’t belong to her. And the future? If only she could get off the merry-go-round and start again it might just be okay.
Chapter 1
Emma wasn’t crying when she arrived at the doctor’s surgery, but it was here that the sadness really hit her. It was as if someone had switched her off at the mains or replaced her endorphins with Marmite. She tried to form the words to tell the receptionist about her eleven-thirty appointment with Doctor Hue and all she could manage was a shaky murmur. The woman behind the desk raised one eyebrow, asked her name and processed her with all the enthusiasm and compassion of a shop girl swiping a sweaty lettuce over a bleeping scanner. She handed her a wooden tag with the number three pressed into it, pointed her in the direction of the waiting room and quickly turned her flawed attention to a suspiciously orangey man who had queued behind.
Emma still wasn’t crying when she sat down in the waiting room, but whether the tears were on the inside or flowing for the whole world to see really made no difference to her as she lowered herself into an uncomfortable chair and tried to make sense of her surroundings. At a glance, the brightly decorated room inspired hope and was a tranquil greenroom to warm up for the doctor/patient show. But it was a ruse. The posters pinned to every available scrap of wall space told her that everything remotely fun, tasty or indulgent was bad for her and used a range of colourful characters to convey the sombre message. A small notice by the door told that twenty people had missed their pre-booked appointments this week and a new policy was being put in place to put this time-wasting to an end (maybe including the use of some kind of corporal punishment), and all of the other signs informed patients of misery classes they could attend to get them through a soul-destroying life. A problem shared is a problem halved, but with misery’s penchant for company, Emma pictured the distress of the cancer and rape victims, the co-dependants and the alcoholics, dividing and multiplying and taking on a life of its own to form a kind of hyper-misery to inject back into the world.
She picked up a battered copy of Hello magazine, with a smiley face sketched in the O in biro, and pretended to read the taglines. The tears, however, were now lurking just under her lids and would burst out at any point, so she had to concentrate hard.
The old woman sitting opposite her was also concentrating hard. She was an antique with very little hope for restoration; her skin had a recycled quality to it, her ankles were bound in frayed bandages so that her toes were blue and puffy, the fat around her calves spilling over like poorly executed soufflĂ©, and her head moved at intervals of its own volition. An aware onlooker would doubt that she could even pull herself out of her chair without some part of her falling off, but Emma was not an aware onlooker. She didn’t even notice the old woman until the smiley face in the O frowned and raised an eyebrow in her direction – at least that was what the blur in front of her looked like after staring intently for ten minutes.
Slowly, she pulled her head heavily from its slump, swept a parting in her lank hair and felt a jolt of terror and embarrassment to see that the old woman was staring not only right at her, with eye balls that no longer fit their sockets, but she was looking on with such an expression of pity that Emma could feel it landing on her cheeks and transforming them into glowing radishes.
The old woman’s fingers twisted into painful sausages and the stress of age and illness was contorting her features, blending her seamlessly into the glum-making posters behind, but still there was pity for Emma. It was as if the depression inside of Emma was oozing from every pore and encasing her in a sticky gloom, hiding everything that the woman should be seeing, should envy – the vibrancy of youth; delicate features which when ignited by delight illuminated a room; fiery red hair that no amount of hair dye could imitate, luscious and rich; a smile, which when not transforming her lips lived coyly in her eyes. None of it was visible through the gloom. Her eyes were dead, her hair greasy and even her uncomfortable posture compromised the youth. The smile, which had been a trophy of hers for so long, she kept in a cupboard at home in case of emergencies.
Despite the excruciating creaking of her bones, the old woman eased her body forward and reached out to touch Emma’s leg. As her face came closer, Emma’s instinct was to look or run away, but there was a softness and wisdom that held her gaze.
Very slowly, the old woman’s shaky mouth opened, preparing to offer advice or wisdom or a recipe for chicken soup, or any number of things that Emma would never find out because the number three flashed behind her and with the buzz, the woman’s mouth slammed shut and the hand was pulled away.
‘I have to…’ Emma finally said and held up the number three tag to finish the sentence. She then slowly backed towards the door and half-curtseying out of the room.
And then came the tears.
Maybe it was the name on the door – Doctor Hue – in solid, impenetrable, gold lettering. She tried to compose herself and raised her tear-drenched hand to knock on the door, but the voice beyond boomed, ‘Come!’ before she even made contact.
She dragged both hands across her face, cleared her throat and patted her summery skirt to free it of creases (or maybe to rid it of the little flowers that she never really liked), and slowly pushed through the heavy door.

Doctor Hue’s office was a true testament to his success. Everything gleamed as if it was polished three times a day: the desk, the books, the sports trophies that proved just how healthy he was, even the leather armchair, which Emma opted against sitting on through fear that she would slide off and land in the sea. She seated herself shakily on an uncomfortable chair opposite his colossal desk and felt suddenly intoxicated by a sickly sweet aroma, the origins of which were unclear. Doctor Hue, however, was very comfortably seated, although he always seemed to sit unfeasibly upright in his chair. He was either very proud in posture or was being operated by a puppeteer with an extremely long arm. If, indeed, this was the case, the puppeteer operated with immense subtlety; Doctor Hue’s hands moved only to tap on the keyboard in front of him or push his thin-rimmed glasses back into place; his head moved by slim, slow degrees as if he had originally been a puppet in a horror spoof, and his expression was fixed in a kind of faraway wonder that could be easily interpreted as boredom. None of this changed to welcome his patient into the room or put her at ease.
‘Miss… Crown,’ he offered without taking his eyes off his computer screen. ‘What can I do for you today?’
‘Well,’ Emma began then the tears came again and for a moment she couldn’t speak.
Doctor Hue either didn’t notice or was offering a po-faced decoy as he Googled what to do when patients cry.
‘It’s the same as last week and the week before,’ she told him. ‘You must remember me.’
‘Of course,’ he lied, still refusing to look at her.
‘You told me to come back if things didn’t improve.’
‘Have they?’ he asked, pushing his glasses further up his nose, his eyes now furiously scanning his monitor (or as furiously as his mysterious puppeteer would allow) to catch up with her symptoms. Then he stopped and did look at her. Something in his stare made Emma feel that the room, the chair and the doctor himself had suddenly grown and she was now a mucky dot on the furniture, something that his emphatic cleaner had missed and as a consequence, would later reap an almighty punishment. His face was devoid of compassion, sympathy, empathy. In fact, his eyebrows raised and his eyes glazed over as if she had already been in seventeen times that morning and he was no longer enjoying her company.
‘I really don’t know what more you expect us to do for you, Miss…’ This time he didn’t consult his screen for her name.
‘But I still can’t sleep. I’m breaking into tears all the time.’ She was crying as she spoke, not by way of demonstration or to prompt humility into his rigid, upright, never-needed-help-before face, but because she really couldn’t help it. ‘And the panic attacks; I’m still having panic attacks.’ She wanted to stop – the tears and the words – but both were relentless: a watery plea to a man who would move her along as soon as he could get a word in. ‘The locum gave me Diazepam a few months ago. It really helped, but nothing else does. Look at me. This isn’t normal. This isn’t how I’m supposed to be feeling.’
Then a new expression came to his face, one that she would never have predicted – a smile. ‘Diazepam,’ he repeated and grinned at the suggestion.
She felt smaller still, as if the furniture was now somehow ingested her. ‘Yeah. It helped. I didn’t –’
‘And what would you do with this Diazepam?’ he asked, emphasising the name of the drug to give it a meaning that Emma couldn’t quite comprehend.
‘I –’
‘No, no, no!’ he smiled and shook his head in time with the words. Then he didn’t say anything at all; he just stared, challenging her to speak, but the moment she found the courage to open her mouth he interrupted. ‘You do realise that Diazepam is highly addictive.’
‘Yeah, but –’
‘And you’re obviously aware that Diazepam has quite a street value these days.’
‘What are you trying to say?’
‘No, no, no! I really think, Miss...’
Emma summoned all her strength to fight him. ‘Crown! My bloody name is Crown!’ But he didn’t even look up at her attempt at an outburst. The puppeteer pulled hard on his eyebrows and folded his arms, showing Emma that her defiance had confirmed her status as an unstable addict and dealer. She wanted to say so much. The old Emma would never have allowed herself to be treated like this, but the old Emma would never be in a doctor’s office asking for Diazepam. She was a high-flyer, an artist, a creative who thrived on life. She would have told him what to do with his Diazepam and told him to ram his condescending, ugly, fat head up his arse. She would have cut the puppet strings and watched him flail on the floor like a dry fish sucking useless oxygen then stomped on the carcass. This Emma, however, cried openly and relentlessly, the world disappearing around her. As the room returned and her intense sobs became sad whimpers, she saw that Doctor Hue was staring at her, still smiling then he looked down at his watch. She took a deep breath and dragged her hand across her face. There was nothing more to say. She grabbed around for a little dignity and found just enough to stand up, turn away from the doctor and leave the room.
‘Come and see me if things don’t improve,’ she heard him say on the way out and she completed her turn on the conveyer belt, followed closely by the half-dead wise woman who she was sure would be packed off with a prescription for Paracetamol and a ‘Come back when your head falls off’.

Diazepam for Sale is available from 15 October.
For more information, visit Whoosh Books 

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