The Firefarer – Background, Acknowledgements and Future Plans

 

The Firefarer cover

As The Firefarer is finally finished, I thought I’d just post a few words in the way of acknowledgements, as well as providing a bit of background for – what I admit – is something of a weird book.

First off, I’d like to thank everyone who’s read, voted and critiqued on Wattpad, as that kind of support encourages me more than you can imagine. I’m especially grateful to Rob May of Firebound Books for designing the tremendous cover. The Firefarer will remain free to read on Wattpad until July, as I’m currently editing it for publication on Amazon.

As as far as background is concerned, here goes. What I’ve discovered in my limited experience of novel writing is that a completed story never quite resembles the book I set out to create in the first place. This was particularly the case with The Firefarer. I had some kind of grand idea about writing a postmodern fantasy. Obviously, if you’ve read it, you’ll know that didn’t happen.

The problem is that, quite frankly, postmodernism and fantasy are not an easy fit. Postmodernism is all about pastiche, it’s all surface and self-reference. And when we read a work of fantasy fiction, we don’t want to be reminded that what we’re reading is an illusion. We don’t want to immerse ourselves in realms of magic or in alternative realities, only to be jerked out of them by some smug literary conceit. And so, while I still wanted to mess about with the idea of art and the way it shapes our awareness, I didn’t want to risk getting mired in some kind of meta-narrative. It just wouldn’t have been satisfying to write, and I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have been much of a satisfying read, either.

On the other hand, I did want to challenge myself in terms of world building, in terms of character development and in terms of experimenting with narrative structure. While Hal and Hannac were great fun to write, it was pretty much one long sprint to the finish. With The Firefarer, I decided that I wanted the novel to function laterally rather than linearly, with stories spinning off from each other.

In fact, some of the scenes in the book started life as ideas for stand alone short stories. These included the opening chapter on Erland’s island, and the living maze. What made me decide to link them together was Andre. Once I’d come up with her character, I knew I had the potential for a novel.

The idea of art as something which can shape not merely our perceptions but reality itself, is a concept I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. I think I probably first encountered it as an undergrad studying literature over twenty years ago. – God, I feel old now! One issue which cropped up repeatedly back then concerned the extent to which books reflect reality, the flipside of that question being of course, to what extent is our reality informed by the books we read. So that was the underlying premise for the way all art works in The Firefarer, whether visual, literary, musical or even culinary, as Vito and Andre discover in the House of Clay.

I could say more about the story itself – in terms of how I got my ideas for the different cultures or characters,  for example. But I think I’ve learnt my lesson. Once you start showing your workings as a writer, the spell is broken. And besides, I kind of trust my readers to figure things out for themselves. The Firefarer is what it is – it has its weaknesses, and hopefully it’s got one or two strengths too. Either way, I’ve decided that it’s a project I personally want to continue, probably in the form of a sequel or even a quartet of books designed to represent fire, water, earth and air. In the meantime, I’ll be getting a Hal short out, followed by the third part in The Duellist series. And I’ve got plans for a work of historical fiction, linking the lives of three different women across time. I can’t wait!

 

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Review – Solaris

So, I’m not a huge science fiction fan. In fact, this was quite possibly the first sci-fi novel I’ve ever read, but the students in our school book club chose to it and so I had no choice but to give it a go. That and it being a classic of Polish literature, and having lived in the country for so long, it just seemed polite. My mistake, however, was to decide to read it in Polish.

I mean, I thought my Polish was reasonable, and it’s not the first novel I’ve read in the language. I tried a Stieg Larsson thriller – not a problem. I even, for reasons best known to myself, read Joyce’s Stephen Hero in Polish. But Solaris was a different matter altogether. I don’t know if it was the technical references, or Lem’s endless, endless descriptions of the planet/the ocean/the insides of the space station etc. but I found this  a really hard read.

Having said that, what I did pick up from this book is how groundbreaking it must have been – and remains. It’s far more than just another sci fi. It’s a novel which explores issues of identity, the notion of who we are, and whether the alien or ‘other’ is not in fact ourselves. And although such themes seem quite familiar now, that’s because we’re in an era when movies like 2001 Space Odyssey or Blade Runner are ingrained in our collective psyche. So to find them in a work from the Soviet era demonstrates just how much of an impact Lem’s fiction has had on the genre.

I found the relationship between Kelvin and Harey almost too painful to read about at times, as he relives the guilt and agony he associates with her suicide and she is forced to face up to her own loss of selfhood. I was also impressed with the way in which the tension and sense of isolation on the space station is effectively realised. And by the time Lem forces his reader to confront the real nature of Solaris  – what it might be, and how that reflects on our sense of our humanity – I was left in no doubt that this was stake-raising literature of the highest order. It’s a book that gets under your skin, which doesn’t promise any solutions, but asks big questions in a very subtle manner.

So I guess I ought to read this book again, if I’m to really appreciate it. But next time…in English.

An English Woman in Poland. What the Referendum Means to Me

So I never really meant to get political on my blog. This is primarily a platform for my fiction and reviews. However, I’m not a big fan of Facebook, and it’s hard to vent true spleen in 140 characters on twitter. Consequently, this seems to be the only option available to me.

I sent off my application for a postal vote today. I wanted to make damn sure I get my ballot paper for the referendum. I mean, I’ll be honest, this is a question of pure self-interest. I don’t harbour grand ideals about the restoration of sovereignty – which, incidentally in an era of corporate influence and globalised power structures I take with a pinch of salt anyway. Nor is it based on some ridiculous notion that the British economy will thrive the minute we leave the EU. If characters like Sir Philip Green are anything to go by, we’re more than capable of ruining our economy without any help from Brussels.

No, the reason why I’ll be voting to remain is simple. I’m a British national living in Europe. One of an estimated 1.26 million according to International Business Times. And let’s just say, my future looks very, very uncertain if Britain comes out of the EU.

I have taught English in Poland since 2003, which I’m sure Brexit supporters would say makes me very much a part of the problem. But then, you see, I’m one of those weirdos who believes that isolationism and a refusal to engage in dialogue is not really the way to go about solving Europe’s problems – whether those problems be economic or geopolitical. No, I’m of the strange idea that communication promotes development, promotes understanding and eases rather than intensifies conflict. Which is why I’m proud to be a foreign language teacher.

I’ve built a life for myself in Europe on the understanding that I am, well, a citizen of an EU country and therefore protected by certain rights which include freedom of movement. If Brexit happens, that certainty is gone. Having worked in Poland since 2004 without a visa, I may find I need one. This would almost certainly leave me without the job security I currently enjoy. After thirteen years of building my life in this country! I have a mortgage here, for god’s sake. I have a full time job, a bank account, friends who I’ve known for years. And my partner who, until now, has never had any problems visiting my family in the UK – because believe it or not, not all Poles actually want to live in Britain – could now find it increasingly difficult to do so. But then, I suppose, for Brexit campaginers, the break up of family ties is fairly low on their list of priorities. After all, if they haven’t yet come up with a realistic economic model for post-Brexit Britain, they’re hardly going to be scratching their heads worrying about the fate of a few British/European families being split up.

But worrying about the potential loss of all I’ve worked towards as a Brit abroad is not the only example of my self-indulgent, self-interested rant. Because, on top of being an ex-pat, I have the temerity to be an academic. And Brexit is bad, bad news for academia.

Why? Well, first of all it could well lead to a severance of Britain from the Bologna process, which I have personally been a beneficiary of. The Bologna process was set up to ensure that academic structures are commensurate across Europe. Therefore, when I started my doctorate, my MA from a British university was immediately accepted as the equivalent of a Polish MA. This not only meant that I cut out tiresome red tape, it also gives me the right to work in Polish universities, as it would do in other parts of Europe. My experience was very different to that of my American colleague, who was forced to jump through any number of bureaucratic hoops in order to prove that his MA was also a valid starting point for a doctorate.

But it’s not just systems like the Bologna process which are valuable and which could ultimately be lost if the UK leaves. As over 150 members of the Royal Society including Stephen Hawking have pointed out, Brexit would be, in academic terms, an utter disaster. As Hawking and his colleagues assert:

“If the UK leaves the EU and there is a loss of freedom of movement of scientists between the UK and Europe, it will be a disaster for UK science and universities…Investment in science is as important for the long-term prosperity and security of the UK as investment in infrastructure projects, farming or manufacturing; and the free movement of scientists is as important for science as free trade is for market economics.” (Brexit would be a Disaster, The Guardian)

Research is about dialogue. It’s about fostering collegiate atmospheres – not just within national borders, but globally. Those conduits of information, that engagement with other European nations for academic purposes and the securing of European investment in both science and the humanities is what underpins our position as the world’s fifth largest economy. But then, why trust the likes of Hawkings when we have authorities like Boris Johnson and George Galloway to help us reach an informed opinion?

There is one other rather pressing reason which will prompt me to vote remain. I have lived in Poland for long enough to realise that it’s a country which has a complex and sometimes toxic relationship with the past. But there’s one aspect of that relationship which I take very seriously, and that is Poland’s attitude to Russia. While, pre-Ukraine conflict, there seemed to be a sickening toadying on the part of the West towards Putin – presumably because of the scope and scale of Russian investment – the Poles were, well, sceptical about such a cosy arrangement to say the least. The perception that Russian imperialism had not disappeared but had rather manifested itself afresh pretty much informed the way the country conducted its relations with its eastern neighbour.

It’s interesting to observe that one of the few people outside the UK who is rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of Brexit is Putin. As, for example, a recent article in Newsweek asserts:

“While Putin himself has not publicly said anything about a Brexit, the Russian embassy in London recently seemed to weigh into the Brexit debate—denigrating Prime Minister David Cameron on Twitter. One tweet accused Cameron’s In-campaign of being unable to ‘win the argument on its merits.’” (EU Referendum: Brexit, Newsweek)

Putin’s cynical campaign of displacement and upheaval in Syria has, of course, the long term aim of destabilising Europe’s borders. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees places financial and political strain on a union which has opposed his policies of intolerance and aggression through condemnation and sanctions. Whether a British government would have the will to offer meaningful critique of Putin’s strategies when so much Russian money is invested in the UK is another question. What matters with regard to Brexit, however, is that at the very moment when the Russian President is playing fast and loose with foreign policy, Britain threatens to pull up the drawbridge and leave Europe to its fate. And as a Brit now living in a country which borders Russia, the consequences of such a breakdown in European solidarity are, quite frankly, frightening.

So, if it’s self-interest that motivates me to vote remain, then so be it. Because beneath all the grandiose talk of reclaiming sovereignty and bolstering the British economy, that’s pretty much all the Leave campaign is about too. The very idea that a hypocrite like Iain Duncan Smith is acting out of altruism makes me want to projectile vomit into my laptop. The fact that the likes of Johnson and Duncan Smith can make political capital out of an issue which is of such importance reminds me of how little honesty there is left in politicians. If British citizens in Europe are going to be dumped on from a height, we owe it to ourselves to make our case.