Promoting a Book as a Disabled Writer – My Precarious Year, by Peter Raynard

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Peter Raynard’s debut poetry collection ‘Precarious’, is published by Smokestack Books

In a hotel room on a bright August Monday morning this year in Cork, I am near to tears. My wife and I are packing our bags – she to go home to England, me to stay in Ireland and do two readings as part of a poetry exchange programme between Cork and my home town of Coventry. We had a lovely weekend away, eating nice food, and taking in the sites, which included the Pride festival on Sunday. I was exhausted. But I was exhausted before we came away. I felt depressed. But I felt depressed before we came away. I was very anxious, but I was…. Such emotions come in waves, sometimes as a result of events like these, other times just simmering away – they rarely leave me.

Having a book published is an incredible feeling; full of excitement, joy, and fear. Precarious is my debut poetry collection, and so one reason fear raises its hydra head, is the dread that my work is no good. That my publisher was wrong believing in me, and the readers will find that out. Being working class and having never written a creative word until my early 30s, I still have to pinch myself when I say that I am a writer but ‘imposter syndrome’ persists. Luckily, those who have read my book, have really liked it – poetry and non-poetry readers alike. One of the greatest feelings is knowing that my friends, and their friends, have enjoyed it; one even took the book into work and read my poems from the factory floor.

I have poly-endocrine disorder, which means my adrenal, thyroid, and pituitary glands either don’t work at all, or only drip feed me vital hormones when they should be giving me a steady flow. Essentially, I have no fight or flight to life’s stresses, and a weird metabolism (fast, fast, slow, slow, slow, slow, st…). When I am at home, doing the day job of domestic care (a.k.a. househusband), and writing – whether it be features for my blog Proletarian Poetry, or editing another poet’s work, I am better able to manage it, even though it regularly involves retreating to my bed.

Although a publisher helps with the selling of your book, most writers know they have to get out there to promote it, and this is where the problems started for me. Thus far this year I have read in London (three times), Cheltenham, Oxford, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Ledbury, Bristol, Hay-on-Wye and Derby, with Swindon, Merthyr Tydfill and Coventry to come. I love reading to audiences. I have always enjoyed being in front of people. In my previous job, working for a charity as an organizational development consultant, I spoke in front of people from the World Bank, to small community centres in North England, to a group of fishermen on a beach in the Philippines. Before each front-facing event, I would be sick with worry (I would be sick before playing competitive sports at school). But it was not a sickness brought on by a lack of confidence, or that something would go wrong, it just felt, and still feels like a natural reaction to presenting myself and my ideas or poetry in front of strangers – albeit strangers who are nearly always lovely people.

“You deal with depression in a solitary way. You withdraw from people, social media, the news.”

My readings in Cork went well. I was very well looked after by Paul Casey from the legendary O’Bheal and my poetry partner Jane Commane. It was a great experience, meeting lots of new people, talking poetry, mental health and politics. I felt so at home in an ‘Irish’ setting, one I had grown up with in my part of Coventry (known as ‘County’ Coundon). On my return, I was unwell for about two weeks. This came in the form of bed-ridden exhaustion, anxiety, physical pain, depression, and nausea.

This has been a year of extremes. Like sliding into a warm pool with bubbling water, only to be hauled out naked by the throat and thrown into the rain lashed sea. Trying to swim back to shore involves a whirligig of thoughts; each interaction or conversation with another person is gone over endless times – did I listen to the person enough? Was I arrogant, self-centred, unempathetic? So, when meeting lots of people, or having a number of things to do, the swirl of thoughts is overwhelming. I read on that Internet somewhere that people aren’t programmed to interact with hundreds of people in one sitting.

You deal with depression in a solitary way. You withdraw from people, social media, the news. If you can, you seek help – GPs, CBT practitioners, therapists. Measures of improvement are tested by dipping a toe back in. Lurk on social media without comment. Lightly pick over benign news items, or seek out intellectual solace through books and podcasts (I listen to episodes of In Our Time and This American Life). You may then go to another person’s reading. Passing these tests, you start to re-engage.

This is a dangerous time for those recovering from depression. It has been likened to ripping off a scab, you retreat to tend to an open wound, one you knew wasn’t going to go away altogether, but hoped it wasn’t going to be as painful as before.

About two years ago, when I was not out in the world very much, I made the positive move to give up hope. My endocrine conditions were not going to be cured, and their effects would have to be managed. I did this having read the poet, Lucia Perillo’s experience of living with Multiple Sclerosis. This quote from her summed up my decision. “Hope is ravenous like the gulls, and we are being eaten alive.” I am lucky that I am not young and won’t have to deal with this for another forty years. I am lucky that I have family and friends, who although don’t really understand what I am going through, are there to support me. Importantly, I don’t need to claim benefits, as my partner works.

I have done much more than I ever thought I would in my life. I have a great set of friends, travelled the world both with work and leisure (often the two combined), got three degrees, written and edited books, married a wonderful person, have two great sons, a niece and two nephews (three if you include my sister’s dog). That must be what matters now. My health can’t cope with high levels of engagement with folk or issues anymore – I really am not up for the fight, in fact the language of fighting in ill-health terms is very damaging. People don’t lose a fight with being ill, they do as they are advised and treated, and look to a positive outcome.

All of this will happen in the next couple of years – a slow withdrawal. And, despite high levels of anxiety, I am really looking forward to the rest of the readings I’ll be doing over the next six months. But I will also look forward to not doing them, and concentrating on writing. Maybe I’ll write a book of fiction. My poetry brother Richard Skinner, Director of Faber Academy, is the master teacher of novel writing, so I may try my hand at that. I just have to make sure it is never published! Now that is something I can control. Sláinte.

About the author of this article

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the author of two books of poetry. ‘Precarious’ his debut collection is published by Smokestack Books, and ‘The Combination: a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto’ by Culture Matters. He is also the editor of Proletarian Poetry: poems of working class lives – http://www.proletarianpoetry.com

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Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

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Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

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Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102