…and, no doubt, I’ll get things wrong. Bear with me.
At this time of year, in this place, the mountain exhales at night. Her breath is cool and descends to the city below, bringing with it the scent of the deep, dark places she hides, of lush flowers and constant decay, accompanied by a whisper of secrets and charms. The nights end still in darkness, when the monks in the temple begin their chants and ring their bell or strike their gong, setting off a daily cascade of soi dogs, each howling their welcome to the day, barking their devotion. The sun rises some hours later, tropical-swift, giving only slightly less daylight than in the middle of summer, framed by the harsh calls of myna birds and the roar of the waking airport.
I shall miss this and I shall not. For I keep these moments close, a part of me as much as any other. Soon I shall say goodbye to Chiang Mai and the little house on the edge of the jungle; soon I shall head to a new adventure and gather up fresh scents and vignettes, populate mind and memory, snippets of lived-experience drifting into my fiction unnoticed, colouring the drab with the paint of what makes us human.
This is the very first “proper” newsletter of mine and I am still unsure what shape or form this shall take. For this reason, I shall commence with an apology, an insurance in advance for any missteps on the journey.
I am writing to you from Chiang Mai, where we have recently celebrated Loi Krathong and have yet to experience the rising air pollution of the latter part of the dry season. We have been here for more than a month and it has rained perhaps four times. Maybe five?
This newsletter shall be broken into manageable chunks, easily digested or skipped, at least that is the plan. I may, over time, come up with pretty subtitles, but that might take a wee while. I definitely like the idea of an initial vignette, a small setting of the scene before launching into business.
Then there shall be this, a brief introduction. If I write like this, it shall be easier to keep ahead of myself, schedule a moment to craft one part whilst juggling other things. At least, that’s the plan. I am also well aware I have a habit of too many words. This initial newsletter shall definitely be long, as I shall try to introduce each potential section (work-in-progress, remember?), as briefly as I can.
As detailed here and touched upon here, I shall soon (very soon) be self-publishing the first of four novellas. Actually, this shall be the first two novellas, each with a bonus tale (which are also more-or-less novellas themselves). I shall also be publishing the French translation of the first novella.
This has been a long process and, in some ways, I shall be glad to see the end of it — in other ways, however (being too much of a perfectionist), I am well aware I shall never truly see the stories as finished. To counteract this, I am attempting to look forward to the second pair of novellas and bonuses and, especially, the final editing of my first novel and drafting of the second.
For the purposes of this letter, this paragraph will be relatively brief. This is simply because I expect to send another note when these tales are ready to be published, just so you know — maybe you’ll want to read them? If you enjoy fantasy fiction and like characters that are perhaps not exactly the usual, then these stories might be for you.
Oh, and the first one shall also be free.
As a bonus for here and now, here’s a work-in-progress, a not quite finished map. All such stories need maps.
The big, non-writing, news is that we are leaving Thailand for exciting pastures new. After a Scottish Christmas, English New Year, and French early/mid January, we will drive from France in the campervan (I say we, those of you who know me also know that I do not drive, so poor Aurélie will be driving), heading west, then south, then west again, our destination Portugal, where we will explore and look for a new home base. Initially, we were thinking of the Algarve (and Tavira, for example, still looks like somewhere to investigate), but we are increasingly leaning towards the Silver Coast and the area around Lisbon, both north and south — especially if it is on the railway route. Different birds, different foods, songs, scents and weather. All those things that make travel and adventure what it is. Watch this space. Any hints, tips, ideas or thoughts, hit reply to this message and do share — all notes gratefully received.
This month (since this is your first proper newsletter, I’m taking this date as the 1st of November, until today), I have read a total of four novels and two novellas. In order of reading:
I have enjoyed all these — I have become that person who won’t finish a book they are not getting anything out of, something that when I was younger I vowed not to do, but life is short and there are too many good stories available not to enjoy your reading time.
Of the above books, my personal favourite was the first, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. In my opinion, it has everything a story needs, in just the right order and portion size, it is beautiful and engaging, powerful and tender, and definitely worth tracking down and devouring.
I usually have a couple of non-fiction books on the go at any one time but, this month, I have mostly been using that time to read and research articles and blogs (and watch vlogs) about living in Portugal. Last month I read Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley, an at-times horrific book (due to the content, the horrors man visits upon man, not due to the craftsmanship of the book itself), but also undeniably fascinating. I have also been reading Living With Earth: 20 Years of Building Earthen Homes by Hand, by Jon Jandai and Margaret Reents. This is a book I helped upload to Amazon and, if you are at all interested in either or both learning how to build homes from the earth or/and reading about a different way to live, this comes heartily recommended. (It will also be available as a book-book, soon!)
Watching and Listening?
In future emails, I may also share what I have been listening to and what I have been watching too, what was seen at the cinema, for example, and being within easy public transport distance of a cinema will definitely be an important consideration for our Portugal location. I used to keep an anonymous tumblr account in which I recorded everything I listened to — looking back at this is interesting, showing mood, showing development of thought etc. I suspect, however, this might be more interesting to me and not you? Although seeing as the initial concept for this newsletter was that of a writers’ notebook, maybe these things are essential? Work very much in progress. (BONUS: as I type this I am currently listening to and rather liking Buraka Som Sistema, in my ongoing research into all-things-Portugal. Cultural immersion, you know?)
As I mention in this twitter thread, Gerald Durrell figured prominently in my formative years. The Amateur Naturalist was — and is — one of my favourite books and his Corfu trilogy of autobiographical novels likewise made a big impression. (Semi-? or is all autobiographical writing by definition semi-? Does the act of remembrance, coupled with the creative mind, twist facts to fit a narrative? Probably. But, this is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination — we ARE stories, after all.)
As an aside, linking back to above, one thing we are currently working our way through watching — and thoroughly enjoying — is The Durrells. I loved the 1980s version of My Family and Other Animals (and own it on DVD), but this adaptation is also magnificent. I only recently learnt that Theo, in real life, had a daughter a couple of years younger than Gerald, who went with them on their exploratory expeditions. In the books and the television series, she is never mentioned, nor is the fact Theo was married.
I digress. Nature is crucial to who I am. I have spoken about this before, on several occasions, and there is not really time or space to do so again here. Instead, this shall be a regular section detailing a brief encounter with nature, something that came into my life and enriched it.
This month is the turn of this moth. I very nearly squashed it, as it was initially hiding within my flipflop in the dark. The case of the moth in the flipflop in the nighttime. Not having field guides and easy access to identification books has been tricky for me (Aurélie realised how important this was to me some time ago and gifted me a Birds of Thailand book) — I think this is Daphnis nerii, or the Oleander hawkmoth, but I’m not certain.
I cannot leave this paragraph without mentioning the fact I am editing this newsletter from Chiang Dao, with a stunning view of one of my favourite mountains on earth, surrounded by shoals of butterflies and the hum of a thousand thousand insects. The night here is cold, the day bakes. I am lucky to be here, at this moment, in this place, even as I gently brush the tiny ants from my keyboard, discouraging them from trying to search within. Everything here is eating something or someone else. It is the way of the jungle and an essential, simple lesson in our interconnectedness.
Ending of Sorts
I think, for this letter, this is a good place to begin to wind things up.
Once upon a time I read a useful piece of advice from, I think, Neil Gaiman (and I am definitely paraphrasing his advice here). He was asked to pass on something writers could directly implement to help boost their craft and explained how his output had increased considerably when he stopped writing emails. This has definitely been the case for me — all those words I used to share in two-or-three thousand word missives are now reserved for my other writing and, crucially, I find the creative energy I used to input into these is now saved for my work. That said, I sometimes miss longer emails, some occasionally sneak out, true, and I suspect this newsletter might well become a surrogate for those missed missives. It is a letter, after all.
I hope something here has been of interest? If you did enjoy it (or, for that matter, even if you hated it) and you know someone else who would also enjoy it, by all means, do forward this newsletter. And, if you did hate it, there’s an unsubscribe button just below! I suspect the next newsletter shall have a lot more about my fiction.
Finally, any thoughts or things you wish to share, you can always reply to this. I will certainly read everything I receive, but I cannot promise I shall send a long reply, for the reasons explained above!
Take care, spread kindness and I’ll leave you with this thought. When I was exercising yesterday, swinging my kettlebell, I listened to the pounding beats of The Prodigy, as I have done for more nearly thirty years now. Only relatively recently have I also discovered their music neatly fits my exercise routines. As I cooled down after my workout, I was suddenly hit hard by the remembrance that Keith Flint, the dancer and singer of The Prodigy, took his own life earlier this year. I’ve seen a number of bands in my life and the best gig I ever witnessed was The Prodigy in 1995. Young Alex even clambered onstage at the end of that gig, along with several others, all dancing, all happy. The security were irritated, the band, less so. Keith moved among us, shouting over the crunching bass of the final encore, passing on a handful of words to each stage-invader. By all accounts, this was in keeping with his personality, at odds with the stage presence that terrified certain sections of society in the 90s. A good man, someone who loved nature, whose death surprised those who knew him and those who just watched from afar. We do not know what passes through the minds of the people around us — sometimes a simple word of kindness, a reminder that they are not alone, this is enough to help. Maybe remind someone they are loved?
Enough of my rambles. Until next time.