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A GHOSTHUNTER'S MAP

mapinprogress

I’ve just finished doing edits on my new book - Ghosts of Shanghai - and am feeling very excited about it. The story has been around in my head or notebooks for a good few years now, and it’s really gratifying to see it taking shape at last. To finish off work for the year I’ve been drawing…

Ghosts tells the story of Ruby Harkner, a girl stalked by fear and negotiating the troubled and exotic world of 1920s Shanghai. Chinese ghost stories, gangsters and a weird and beautiful slice of Chinese history combine as backdrop for Ruby’s struggle to overcome loss and work out whether ghosts exist only in the mind - or are very real indeed.

The book should be out in early July 2015, with the sequel Shadow of the Yangtze to follow in early 2016...

FORWARD TO THE PAST

spookywerner

Indulgently, excitedly, guiltily, I’ve come away for a week of intense work on my forthcoming novel Ghosts of Shanghai. Today felt very much like the kind of writing day I always imagined during years of frustration, lack of confidence and rejection (particularly on this project!) So apart from the indulgence and excitement and guilt, what I’m most feeling is luck.

I spent the day sitting in my old room in the barn amongst Welsh hills, working at my student desk, surrounded by books that I’ve had for years and which are finally coming into their own. A Chinese memoir, ghost stories, my pre-pinyin character dictionary, a fading T’ai Ch’i manual are all giving me valuable extra material, and rest next to more recent research, a tumble of books about old Shanghai, maps, a plot chart, notebooks. At long last the ideas and characters that have been formulating for years are taking shape - and reaching their scary conclusion. Or at least that’s how it feels.
Above you see me spooking myself with ghost stories from the era I’m writing about, the odd chill tickling the spine.

There’s a satisfying sense of weaving together a lot of separate strands of interest and research. Many fragments of many different lives combining to make something new.

In keeping with that theme, last night I drove with my mother to Aberystwyth to look through the collected papers and fragmentary memoirs of an old artist friend of our family who died last year.
We parked outside her old house and went to a nearby neighbour who has joint care of the project. As we excitedly looked through the folders, chunks of M’s extraordinary life leapt back into focus - meetings with Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer, run-ins with the high and glamorous and seedy life of 1950s London and beyond, all accompanied by her wonderful biro drawings. You could imagine her standing at our shoulder and nodding at each passage we read out. We never have the full story, but the parts can show the whole.

Later, driving back through the moon splashed mid Wales hills, on the way to buy fish and chips from one of the best chip shops in Wales, it felt like a day well - and movingly - spent.

A TRILOGY - AT LAST!

trilogy

How truly exciting finally to hold in my hands the physical form of the Mysterium Trilogy!

Finished creative works never really betray the months (years!) of anxiety and work that go into making them. Hopefully they arrive looking fully formed, and as if that was the only way they could have looked. As if they were meant to be just as they are. Holding my three finished and beautifully packaged volumes I got a brief sense of that…

… but then, having a clear out both on the computer and in my drawers, I found old drafts for Mysterium, old working notes, old charts - saw characters’ names change, settings shift, chapters disappear and re-appear in kaleidoscopic confusion.

Danny had various other names that I had now completely forgotten. Certain thematic and plot points had winked in and then out of existence. Even the titles of the individual books - and the series as a whole - changed during the process of submission, rewriting, editing. And somewhere, in irretrievable bits, lies the first version of half of Book 2 on a corrupted hard drive. (I keep that on the desk now as a kind of
memento mori and paperweight.)

These shifting quicksands made everything feel so contingent and vulnerable that I suffered a sudden pang of vertigo and had to go and walk around the garden…

And yet amongst all that uncertainty I knew that certain key images, certain character traits, and even certain sentences were strong enough to survive. They felt more like they were waiting to be found, and - once they had been found and slotted into place - were not shifting for anyone or anything. It always felt like that with painting - the (few) I really liked felt like I had nothing really to do with them except sticking a frame round them. It was the ones that were full of superfluous ‘me’ that didn’t feel successful.

Thank goodness for happy discoveries. And thank goodness too for the support and wisdom of editors, agents, designers, friends and family who help navigate all the countless micro-decisions and bring about something that at least looks coherent in the end!

ENCOUNTER WITH THE PAST - OR NOT!

Ah, anticipation - it’s never what you think it’s going to be…

Back in the day when I was studying philosophy (or, rather, reading dangerously off piste) I became very interested in the Presocratics. All those ancient fragments with their tiny pieces of aphoristic wisdom were so much more enticing than the work on Logic or Idealism I’d been set.

Of those thinkers, the one who drew me back time and time again was Heraclitus, who - amongst other gems - declared words to the effect: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice’.

It’s oft quoted, but it was only as I returned last week to my grammar school in Kent - after thirty years absence - that the full power of that statement hit me. I had had a traumatic first two or three years at the school, and though I knew things would be considerably better these days, I realise now that I was still expecting - at some deep level - to meet something of the past in the shape of the buildings, the surrounding town, the one or two remaining familiar faces. But the past, it seemed, had evaporated.


thepast

Even the buildings that remained unchanged seemed to have been swept clear by the intervening years and the tension and anxiety that had taken hold of me in the preceding days lifted from my shoulders as I was shown around the school in the bright March sunshine. The old gym, the assault course, my old form room still existed, but I could feel no trace of my vivid memories or feelings about the place. Time had flowed on…

Instead I had a fun time giving a talk on Mysterium to the assembled Year 8. And the emotional meeting with a former teacher - one of those who had help to improve my experience - was a wonderful, added bonus…

I tested the height of the new school hall with a high toss of a juggling knife, and got on with the business of being me, now.

testing

METAPHORS AND ENDINGS

malunes2

Over the last few weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches to Book 3 of The Mysterium - negotiating the final re-writes with my editor. At the same time it’s been great fun getting out to various schools to promote Book 1 – but quite strange talking about that end of the trilogy, when all my focus has been on getting the climactic finish to Danny’s adventure just right.
And then there’s the pitch for the next book, the long-term film project, the day job, a sick dog, the imminent arrival of our graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills…
In my school talks I’m using my juggling knives to put forward a metaphor-based explanation of why it took me so long to get across the publishing threshold. Juggling and other circus skills are put to hard work in their metaphoric roles, and I am pushing a ‘don’t-be-afraid-to-drop-in-public’ version to explain my delay.
But the other, more obvious, metaphor – keeping lots of things in the air at once – has never seemed more apt. So far no major injuries to audience or performer, but I’m trying to remember that it’s inevitable that I’m going to drop a knife once in a while. And it
will be OK when I do.
In the mean time some real professionals showed me how it’s done. At
Out There street circus festival in Great Yarmouth there were many wonderful acts. But Collectif Malunes (above) stole the show for me. Three acrobats and a trapeze artist managed somehow to explain everything there is to know about the eternal story of boy meets girl – via teeterboard, a small antique caravan, a bucket of apples, a sledgehammer, a lumberjack outfit, the removal of clothing and a rocking soundtrack. We left happier, energised and somehow slightly wiser…
© Julian Sedgwick 2017