Sunday, 24 April 2016

Still In Limbo. Enjoying Limbo. And Ginger Beer.

English: Bottle used for J. Ladd's ginger beer...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I realised things were getting pretty desperate when I started growing a ginger beer plant. I used to have one of these as a kid, gifted to me by someone who hated me.

I used to sell the resulting ginger beer at school. It was mildly alcoholic and popular. Things got out of hand when the school market became saturated and I had to run for it before the teachers found out why their classes were suddenly filled with a mild ethanol and ginger miasma and their lessons greeted with enthusiasm that quickly slipped into grinning torpor.

Ginger beer plants are a curse. You grow one, it makes ginger beer and you end up with two. So you make twice as much ginger beer. It's a mad experiment in exponential escalation a la the wheat and chessboard problem. A couple of weeks later your house is filled with bubbling carboys and near-exploding bottles, cloudy brews and the undeniably rich yeasty reek of fermentation. Your garage is a cellar and your garden has become a storage zone. So you start to give away ginger beer plants. To people you hate.

Trying to grow a ginger beer plant in Sharjah is probably a) illegal and certainly b) pointless. I wouldn't even have contemplated it except I have acquired some small ceramic-stoppered bottles and feel guilty about throwing such pretty little things away. Oh, and because I hadn't got a writing project on the go, I was suffering from serious terminal purposelessness.

Now I have two such projects. They're jostling for my attention. One is a recounting of Gerald Lynch's early history in Civil War Beirut. The other I can't even talk to you about. Seriously.

The ginger beer plant's been chucked out. I wasn't really serious about making ginger beer.

Honestly, ossifer.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Any Old Post

Obscure Motmot
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've slipped into the warm waters of a happy limbo since the LitFest. I've had little enough to say, too 'meh' about things online even to tweet very much but otherwise perfectly content in my space. Easter saw the Niece From Heaven and Naughty Niece coming out for a week which was lovely. Other than that, no news.

I've been tinkering with Beirut - An Explosive Thriller being a free book on Amazon. Having hit #1 free thriller, the book slowly slid down the slope back into the gloopy, fetid air of obscurity that is the lower reaches of the Amazon charts. Olives never did so well, a combination of less than dramatic title and over-dramatic cover doubtless making it less attractive to an incurious wandering eyeball somewhere in Missouri.

Over 2,500 free downloads of Beirut later, only one new review has been posted of the book on Amazon. I wonder quite how many of those downloads ever got opened? Incidentally, you need over 1,000 downloads a day to top the free Thriller chart and a good 200+ a day to stay up there in the top 3 - about 50 downloads keeps you in the top 10. The downloads peaked high early, dropped back very fast and the book is currently being downloaded about 20 times a day. Whether that is residual recommendations from the original spate of downloads or just chance discoveries being made, I do not know.

As for new projects, I've been flirting with the idea of telling the story of how Gerald Lynch first popped up in Beirut during the early 1980s, chasing an IRA bomb-maker called O'Brien. That early history is hinted at in both Beirut and Shemlan. The idea would be a novella rather than a full-on novel. There are other ideas bouncing around, too. Frankly, I'm in no rush and am just letting things bounce around and bed down in their own time.

I am finding that letting my 'online life' settle down into neglect is not resulting in the end of the world as we know it. Who knew?

Sunday, 20 March 2016

'Olives - A Violent Romance' And Flirting With FREE

I've been playing around a bit with this here FREE thing and so Olives - A Violent Romance is now available across ALL ebook platforms as a free ebook. That's right - you can now download my first, acclaimed thriller novel for nothing. Nada. Sifr. It's all yours. Fill them boots.

While this is nice and easy to do with Smashwords (which populates iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and so on), Amazon doesn't support free books unless you've enrolled in KDP Select, which limits you to selling only on Amazon. So - this is a million dollar question for authors - how do I make my books free on Amazon for Kindle without enrolling them in KDP Select?

Here goes:

First you pop over to Amazon and set your royalty rate to 35%. This is important, because at the 70% royalty, you undertake to Amazon that you won't sell elsewhere at a different price. So when you start messing about with prices on other platforms, Amazon can (and has every right to) get a bit tetchy. At the 35% royalty, there are no such restrictions.

Now you set the price to zero in Smashwords and wait for that change to impact iBooks and the other stores served by the multi-publishing marvel. Amazon picks this change up and at its discretion will match its own price to that of iBooks, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. If Amazon's price crawlers don't pick it up after a few days, there's a little button against the book's page on Amazon that allows you to request a price match by providing a link to the competitive store where the other pricing (ie: free) is offered. Note it doesn't work if you provide a link to Smashwords. It has to be a retailer.

My first, silly, book Space is, and always has been, enrolled in KDP Select simply because I wanted to play around with the platform. KDP Select allows you up to five days' free promotion every three months but does have that terrible drawback of only letting you sell via Amazon. And only five days' free promotion isn't quite enough to really make an impact, in my humble opinion. Olives is now perma-free so I can provide a sampler to an increasingly skittish and wary book buying public. And if they like that, they can buy Beirut - An Explosive Thriller for $0.99 and Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy for just $1.99!

Does 'free' work? Well, in the first 24 hours, I've shifted over 500 books. Will it win me readers, reviews, accolades and plaudits? We'll see. I'll let you know how it goes if you sign up for my occasional freebie, hints and stuff emailer... See what I did there?

Oh, by the way, A Decent Bomber and Birdkill will still cost you a reasonable $2.99. You ain't getting them for free...

PS: Amazon also picked up a momentary blip on Beirut's pricing as I was playing around and made THAT free too in the US, although not the UK. For some reason, downloads of Beirut have massively eclipsed Olives and it's now #2 in the Thrillers & Suspense, Espionage listing of the Kindle store. Which is nice...

Sunday, 13 March 2016

That Was The LitFest That Was

I'm feeling slightly shell-shocked this morning. The weekend's whirl is over and I realised, probably massively belatedly but then I am a bear of remarkably little brain, from the moment I started the process of editing and formatting Birdkill, I was preparing for it.

I got roped into a panel on science fiction at the last minute, which was a little bit strange. One of the panellists decided we were all going to start with a reading which I thought odd, but I was feeling benign and generally happy go lucky and so went along with the scheme. There should be a law banning people who assert they 'read rather well' from ever reading their books to an audience.

The invitation to a science fiction panel came because of the mad eugenics, drugs and battlefield enhancement program that's at the heart of Birdkill. I thought of explaining that it's actually reflective of some real-life, modern-day programs run by people like DARPA but threw that up and just agreed to it. In all things bookish, I have a policy of never, ever saying 'no' to anything - something I have rarely had cause to regret, BTW.

It all went well enough, I suppose and we chatted happily about how Sci-Fi has sort of grown up and is no longer the guilty secret read it was when I was a kid, how writing 'near future' Sci-Fi is harder than space opera and other stuff. I was there more as a fan than anything, I suppose. I managed to get in a dig about how explorer of suburban dystopias JG Ballard would have loved writing a novel set in Arabian Ranches, which was all rather fun.

I went to Justin Marozzi's talk about Baghdad which was great. One of the perks of being a LitFest author is your wee badge gives you 'access all areas' and you can attend sessions without a ticket - something I always manage to make all too little use of. I had read Marozzi's history of Baghdad with fascination and similarly enjoyed his presentation. Of course he had to tell the Haroun Al Rashid story. Tsk Tsk.

The how to find your route to publication and onto shelves panel was an absolute hoot. Having in previous years found myself debating the role of traditional publishing vs self publishing with people like Luigi Bonomi (the world's nicest literary agent) and Orion's Kate Mills (an eminently sensible and most likeable lady), it was nice to finally encounter someone who represented the face of traditional publishing I felt I could really disagree with. Jonathan Lloyd is chairman of Curtis Brown, a very big London literary agency, and he was eventually provoked into aiming a sentence at me starting with 'With all due respect' - a phrase all English people know means 'I am about to be rude to you' and Jonathan didn't fail us, advising me that perhaps I might better spend my time learning how to write well instead of dancing around wasting it playing at book marketing.

I am very glad, in hindsight, that I noted the English preamble to discourtesy rather than trying to address the assumption behind it. I'd have come across as an angry and defensive person and I most certainly am neither of those (at least when it comes to writing and publishing my books!). I'm perfectly happy that traditional publishing should continue to strive to exist, as I am that they have clearly decided the things that interest me and how I tell my stories are not for them. Given that, the swipe rather back-fired. Mind, I don't think I'll be signed up by Curtis Brown any time soon...

Arrow's Selina Walker took perhaps a more benign view of the changing face of publishing and the opening up of the market to wider choice and it was clear that publishers and agents are no longer quite as aligned as they once were. Jonathan's assertion that agents were on the side of the author while publishers were in it for themselves drew a polite, measured but I felt slightly pained response.

This was the stuff though - I would describe the panel as lively and it must have been highly entertaining for the audience, which is what you're after really, isn't it?

But I had the most fun the next day, with the panel on crime I shared with Chris Carter and Sebastian Fitzek, both of whom write about serial killers, psychopaths and really, really bad people. I noted to the audience that I felt like something of a fraud - my bad guys are just bad, but they're pussies compared to Chris and Sebastian's bad guys. My bad guys steal ice creams from small kids, stuff like that. They won't rape you while they're sucking out your brains with a straw. Truth be told, my good guys are more of a worry...

We talked about research - meeting IRA members, serial killers and forensic surgeons; about inhabiting the grey area between good and evil; about creating empathy for horrible characters and how you handle putting yourself in the head of a killer. I did a lot of book plugging, for which I am truly contrite.

Both Chris and Sebastian are very nice guys who have some worrying stuff going on in their heads, but they're engaging and genial talkers who conjured a great deal of laughter from the audience. We wrapped up on the hour and it was clear both authors and audience would gladly have stayed another hour and more bouncing all these questions, ideas and experiences around.

We signed books afterwards and some people turned up to have me sign my books which is lucky because that doesn't usually happen and I was dreading getting sandwiched between two international best-sellers with my usual queue of three (mind you, they put me next to 'House of Cards' author Michael Dobbs the day before. As usual, a line disappearing into the horizon next to the yawning space left in front of me after I'd signed a few books. Le sigh.)

As usual, the LitFest team were glorious, wonderful, patient and kind. If there was a single hitch or hiccup, I certainly didn't spot it. Tens of thousands of people, 160 authors, hundreds of sessions, events, happenings, talks and signings. And it was all as seamless as a seamless thing.

So here we are. Facing a world without the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature - at least for another year. What AM I going to do?

Not write another book for a while, I can tell you...

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Twitter Ads, Book Sales And Promoting Birdkill

You know I've got a new book out, right?


I've been playing about a bit with analytics and Twitter ad campaigns. I'm a big fan of Twitter and thought it would be interesting to see what I could get up to in terms of promotions and generally try a couple of things out. I've run Google adwords campaigns in the past and was particularly interested to see how Twitter stacked up against Goog.

Twitter offers a pretty powerful set of dashboards allowing you to analyse your tweets, as well as run promotions to audiences you select. There are a number of ways of slicing and dicing this, by behaviours, interests or contextually based on actions. You can also target other people's followers, which is a bit 'Google' - at the same time mighty handy and also a little creepy.

Generally, book promotion tweets invite lower engagement rates unless they mark real milestones or events or contain some element of wit, news or opinion. Nobody would be surprised to know that 'buy my book' doesn't really cut it.

Timing is also... everything. First thing in the morning, elevenses and evening tweets tend to do better. And so do book tweets that follow a wider non-book tweet, typically an interesting content share.

I ran a campaign over the past weekend which targeted a range of key words, principally 'read' and 'book'. I limited it to the UAE, US and UK and ran it over two days with a total budget of $100. The campaign was based around two tweets and two 'cards', which are a graphical element with a link displayed. Here are those very cards:

Each card graphic is 800 x 320 pixels. So each ad gives you a call to action opportunity with a tweet, a graphic and a clickable link. It's quite a neat wee package. The above turned into the below when I'd finished with 'em:

 The above got $79.29 of my spend, generating 25,970 impressions and 126 clicks.

This one got just $20.71 of my spend, but generated 13,690 impressions and 35 clicks.

Both ads performed similarly, costing around $0.60 per click. So in total my two-day campaign generated 39,660 impressions and 163 clicks to my Amazon page.

What happened? I hear you asking. How many books did you sell over this period?


And I can't even be sure that one came from Twitter, because Amazon doesn't offer the same sort of analytics to authors. It shouldn't really come as a surprise, it's pretty consistent with McNabb's Law of Clicks actually.

I'm running a second campaign now, which targets a number of local UAE handles connected to reading, literature and culture with a much wider selection of creatives. That's costing more per click but getting more clicks per impression. Generally, I found Twitter easier to get my head around and more diverse than Google, but to be honest I'm not really a dashboard kind of boy...

And I'm clearly just playing around here, but there's room to explore a great deal more, leveraging different routes to find, attract and convert readers. That all costs money, of course, and at $100 for one book sale, I can see the route to bankruptcy is not only paved with gold, but also quite comprehensively greased.

Are the messages wrong? The creatives goofy? The targeting atrocious? These are all subjective and yet the dashboards available mean you can refine these, testing what is working and what isn't, increasing your success rate with each iteration. What fascinates me is how 163 people clicked on a link to Amazon and didn't click on 'Buy now'.

Anyway, it's been interesting and I'll continue to play around with it all. I hope the above is useful to someone, somewhere. And if you have any comments, views or insights, you know where to find me: @alexandermcnabb...

Monday, 7 March 2016

Schools. You Gotta Love Them...

Pristine Private School is one of a number of schools clustered in the middle of tower blocks and residential buildings in Dubai's northern Al Twar area. Yes. I checked. No dust.

I was there as an author from the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, to talk to the 'seniors' about narrative and stuff. The hall was very high but not huge in of itself. The stage was huger and the first thing I made up my mind about was not to use it, but to stay at ground level. The kids filed in: girls to the right, boys to the left. Like a dolt, I hadn't told the faculty I needed an LCD and laptop (my own laptop only does HDMI output) to plug my PPT into. They procured both in seconds flat, smilingly.

Me, I'd have killed me, but you takes yer luck as yer finds it.

So we're talking about 100 students in all, something like that. I told 'em about narrative and its history, why it's so important to learn to tell stories for all sorts of reasons: commercial applications of narrative, social applications. Political applications. How you can define and build change around narrative and counter-narrative. How narrative is used to define people, religions, races. How people telling your story when you're not telling it is not a good thing. Basically, to forget what your mum and dad told you and become good at telling stories: the taller the tales you tell, the better.

I told 'em about how publishing was being screwed by the Internet and associated technologies and about disintermediation and what it means. How the democratisation of knowledge that Gutenberg's press imposed on Europe was being repeated by the web and ebooks. And then I talked about my own journey into publishing and my books. I told 'em about the madness of restrictions on taking 100ml of liquid on aircraft when the IRA's last great bomb weighed 1.5 metric tonnes and blew out the heart of Manchester. And, of course, about women going insane while their friends race to try and find out the root of that existentially threatening turmoil. As you do...

Narrative. This sort of thing. 17,000 years in a few slides...

The questions tumbled in. Writer's block. How do you shape narratives? Does a book really always have to start with someone in 'normal' life who's then disrupted by a triggering event? Isn't that something of a trope? How do you take an idea for the beginning, middle and end of a book and connect that up into a whole story?

I was given a bouquet of flowers and a fancy wee trophy as a thank you. They didn't have to do that, really. I signed books. I lost count of how many. Can you spell your name please? Sorry was that Humaid or Hamed? Shayma or Shaima? Ayesha or Aisha? The girls all wanted Olives and I sold out. Which was a bummer because my next stop was Dubai's English College and I didn't have any copies for the students that wanted it. I ran late and had to dash across the city to make it to English College on time.

Gathered in the library of English College was a smaller group. Same talk, essentially. A few variations. A wee bit looser with the old demotic Anglo Saxon. Fewer questions at the end, a quiet room. And then they all clustered around to buy books and the questions came one on one that they hadn't felt they could ask in a group. Signing away, chatting about which book I preferred, how I had thought this or that up. How do you connect stories together? How do you actually, you know, publish a book? How do you upload files to Amazon? Why did I feel a connection to the Middle East? Had I ever lived in Beirut? What's a good book cover vs a bad one? Where can I get Olives? Guilt trip, that last one. I shouldn't have let them all go to the last school...

Bright as a button, both groups. A genuine interest in telling stories, in narrative and a love of books and writing. You could see some of them really having revelatory moments, while a few were there on sufferance. Most were chatty, engaging and cheeky with a lot of sparkiness and wit on display.

What a way to spend the day. I could do this for weeks on end, honestly. What they made of the sessions I can only guess. Some old shouty man berated us for an hour and made us buy his books and I didn't even want him scrawling on the title page and miss-spelling my name.

The author's dinner is next. We always has fun at this. Not always for the right reasons, you understand...

Saturday, 5 March 2016

What? MOAR LitFest Panels?

Five Science Fiction Novels
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm doing a third panel at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, "Future Shock: Writing from a Sci-Fi World" after LitFest luminary Aedan caught a blog post about Birdkill and realised it had weird sciency eugenics stuff in it.

The panel blurb goes thusly:

Humanity has found itself living in the future, and it could be argued that so far we have singularly failed to rise to the challenge. We ask our panel of three very different authors, who generally write in other genres but have recently written one or more science fiction novels – will we survive the world we are creating?

You could argue, funnily enough, that silly first novel Space was science fiction (I'd have called it a high tech thriller spoof, but what I call my books has nothing to do with what people get up to. Just ask that there 'trilogy' of Middle Eastern spy thrillers), so I've got previous 'form', but Birdkill's spooky Hamilton Institute certainly would appear to be the stuff of futurism, although as we now know it's not really far fetched at all.

I've been doing a lot of work in the day job related to futurism and have always sort of paddled in the march of technology area, right from back when I used to write for, edit and publish computer and telecoms magazines and books. So this might be quite fun. I'm joining Dr Who novelist Jenny Colgan as well as space opera author Garth Nix to kick around the proposition that humanity may not survive its own inventions.

The panel's from 10-11am on Friday 11th March at the Al Baraha 1 room at the Intercon Festival City. It's linked here for your convenient LitFest ticket buying pleasure.

And don't forget, you can also come along to:

And Now the Hard Part: Getting Your Book into Print and onto Shelves 
Friday 11 March, 3.30pm-4.30pm Al Ras 2, InterContinental 
Where me and another writer type join two publishing types to talk about getting picked up, marketed and generally turned into a best selling international smash hit sensation. 

Crime Across Continents: How to catch a killer
Saturday 12 March, 11.30am-12.30pm Al Ras 1, InterContinental
Where I join worryingly capable inventors of nasty serial killers Chris Carter and Sebastian Fitzek to talk about how you make your bad guys really, really bad.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Birdkill: Why I Couldn't Quite Get Out Of The Middle East

English: My own work. The wine making headquar...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
'You write very well, you know. You just need to get out of the Middle East. It's doing you no favours. We really, really don't care about it.'

So did a prominent London literary agent advise me. The words hit home hard: I had thought being the only person writing spy thrillers set in this most colourful and conflicted area since Eric Ambler gave us The Levanter would be a good thing, but apparently not. The 'we' he referred to was the Great British Public - the people UK publishers want to sell books to.

I didn't have a firm 'next project' lined up after Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy and I had been toying with the idea of making a book out of my 'Uncle Pat' joke. And so was born A Decent Bomber. I set about abandoning the Middle East with as much distress and compunction as the average psychopath has for his victim. How was I to know that, in terms of attracting British publishing, the next worst place on earth to set a book after the Middle East was Northern Ireland?

By Birdkill I'd given up trying to please anyone but myself, and yet the book was to be set in the UK. It is explicitly not located anywhere in particular. I started out with my short story as a basis and began to construct a narrative around it. That narrative exploded, pages filling with great rapidity as the dreams that had formed the beginning and end of the book raced to meet each other.

Soon enough, Mariam Shadid came calling and simply refused to leave. Great, so now I've got a Lebanese journalist with frizzy hair and a taste for combat trousers and a click-hungry Middle Eastern scandal/gossip website. The Edgware Road poked its damn oud, shisha and cardamom coffee-scented nose in. The pull continued: Robyn's past was drawn inexorably to Zahlé with its restaurants alongside the rushing little torrent of the Berdawni River and its tiled rooftops scattered across the rolling Beqaa. And then, if that wasn't all bad enough, the Château Ksara came calling with its beguiling wiles and wines.

Mary was chatting with Félicie at reception when the Englishman stalked in, an overgrown beanpole of a man, grey-haired with an aristocratic English nose and points of piercing blue under bushy brows. He looked dry and papery, but powerful. The Lebanese have a nose for power, she surmised. Some are attracted to it, seek it; moths to a candle. Others flee it, fearing the trouble and disruption it brings to our precarious lives. She sighed.
‘I would like to speak with Monsieur Delormes as a matter of urgency, please.’ He announced to Félicie who was, and this was her way if you but knew her, unimpressed. She flicked her hair back and glanced over at Mary with a hint of a roll to her eyes.
‘Would you? Who will I say is calling?’
‘Lawrence Hamilton. It is in regard to his new patient.’
Mary tried not to betray her interest. ‘I can take him there.’ She tried to mask her quickening with a shrug. ‘If you like.’

And quite where Sister Mary, the fag-smoking Lebanese nun, came from I could not even begin to tell you, even if you put the thumb screws on.

There's not much Lebanon in there, to be honest, but there's a scattering. Enough to let you know that the Middle East ain't giving me up that easily. Which, oddly enough, I find something of a comfort...

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The STILL Blog And Birdkill's Cover

Birdkill written, I needed a cover image for the book. The title was simple enough, the original short story was called 'Martin', but having made such a mess of my previous book titles (Note to authors: naming your book after a popular food category means a lifetime of SEO fail) I wanted to get this one right. A brief flirtation with 'The boy who killed birds' ended in 'Birdkill'.
I started a-Googlin' for cover images (without any real idea in mind) and soon enough stumbled upon Mary Jo Hoffman's 'STILL Blog', where her image of a lifeless Fox Sparrow was to be found: the perfect cover image. I can't remember what search string got the result, but have a sneaky suspicion it was something fiendishly complicated like 'dead sparrow'...

A quick email exchange later, said image was licensed to me, a process I had been through before with the 'Pill skull' cover image of Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy, which I licensed from Australian artist and borderline head case Gerrard King.
Mary Jo's work is starting to gain the mainstream recognition it deserves, having build a solid wee following on instagram (@maryjohoffman) and with visitors to the STILL Blog itself. A number of people and companies, including major US retailers now, have started licensing her images.

The idea behind STILL is simple enough. Formerly an aerospace engineer, Mary Jo stepped out of the world of fast-moving corporate careers to have kids and enjoy a somewhat more bucolic lifestyle. These days she takes her Puggle, Jack, for a walk every day and forages in the pretty countryside around her rather stylish home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She takes the results home and adds them to her collection of things, arranging these natural finds and taking a daily snap for her blog. She'll occasionally pull in objects from further afield as the family roams. She's got a great eye and creates images of abiding perfection: daily moments that truly give you a sense of stillness.
Sometimes it'll be a single object, sometimes a painstakingly arranged array artistically and beautifully laid out to produce an effect or tell a little visual joke. Her images provide a moment of contemplation each day, sometimes seasonal and sometimes vibrant, lively and filled with freshness. Warm autumn, stark winter and all year round, every now and then, a little death. They're all photographed using natural light.

Like many things that have happened to me on this book journey, the STILL connection has given me a fascinating new insight into something I hadn't known was there before.

I caught up with Mary Jo and grilled her lightly with a little salt and pepper and olive oil about the STILL project and her life in images...

You transitioned from being an aerospace engineer at Honeywell to a stay-at-home mum. How?
I did indeed. I worked in as an aerospace research engineer for 15 years. My area of expertise was flight controls (aka autopilots). By the time I left, I was Director of Research with offices in Minneapolis, Prague, China, and Phoenix.

I loved the work, but the job required too much travel, and was seriously getting in the way of our ability to have children. I was told, in so many words, “Right now, you’re married to your husband. When you take your next promotion, you will be married to the company.” Then, as if on cue, the beloved and virtuous company I had worked for up to that point was bought out by a large, uninteresting, and mostly uncaring corporate conglomerate. So, before it was too late, I quit.

My husband and I essentially tag teamed. I had been the primary bread-winner, and he had always been part time, and now we switched roles. It has been 13 years since then, and we have two incredible kids. I don’t regret the choice often, but I sometimes miss all those smart guys I used to work alongside. Fortunately my husband is not only my best friend but also the smartest guy I know, so I am content hanging with him and the kids as long as they are willing to hang out with me. 

Would you describe your life and surroundings as idyllic? 
The word “idyllic" makes me uncomfortable, because it implies a kind of ideal. I don’t think of our life as ideal. I think of my life as a combination of happy, earned, and fortunate. In summary, I am happily married to a guy I am crazy about, and have been for 25 years. Together we made two pretty remarkable kids. When we were young and in love, and I was making a good income as an aerospace engineer, we continued to live like college students because we simply didn’t want for more. So we saved much of that professional salary for over a decade. That financial security has given us lifestyle flexibility today that we could not have imagined in our 20s. It was one of the smartest things we ever did.

On the flipside, and there is always a flipside, I have a hereditary autoimmune disease called Sjögren's syndrome. Today it is mostly a nuisance, but it could get ugly at any time. When I was young, I was a tomboy and athlete, but today a good six kilometre walk is about as much as I can reasonably do. So those two things: a hint of financial security and a nagging sense of time as precious and finite, have led us to be more deliberate about our lifestyle than most of our peers.

My surroundings, however, I just found out, are very nearly idyllic. I recently learned from Dennis Dutton's TED Talk that there is such thing as a universally idyllic landscape shared by all cultures around the globe.

He describes this universal archetypal landscape as follows:

"People in very different cultures all over the world tend to like a particular kind of landscape, a landscape that just happens to be similar to the Pleistocene savannas where we evolved. It's a kind of Hudson River school landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground, that is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life as well as diverse greenery. And finally -- get this -- a path or a road, perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline, that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful, even by people in countries that don't have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.”

This just happens to describe the land around our home in every way, right down to the copses of trees that fork at the base, lush greenery, abundant wildlife, and a path through the cat-tails out to a bluish lake in the distance. So, somewhere in my amygdala, I must have known this when we bought our home ten years ago. This setting has been a huge source of my inspiration.

There's a transcendent quality to the images you post daily on the STILL Blog and a tremendous sense of peace. Does that reflect your own peace or are you a howling maelstrom of conflict and terrifying possibility underneath? 
While it would sound much more interesting to hint at a howling maelstrom of inner conflict, I have to disappoint you and say it just ain’t so. I have always had a pretty firm sense of who I am, what I want, and what “normal” looks like. I love art. But I don’t really have demons. If there is a peacefulness to my images, I think it comes from a deliberate attempt to separate myself from the craziness that is much of contemporary media and modern consumer culture. The nature I focus on is a healing force, waiting to be paid attention to, if we can tune out the computer, the daily news, and the exhortations of advertising.

You have said the blog is images of things you pick up on your daily walks. Do you find yourself being forced to forage every day now? Do you ever wonder what it would be like to walk aimlessly again? 
My walking and gathering is still a joy. I never think of it as a job or a necessity. But arranging the images and processing the photos, now that I’m in my fifth year, can occasionally feel like one too many things to fit into my day. There are some days when I would like to wake up, open a book, demand a steady stream of lattes, and never leave my bed.

US retailers Target and West Elm (the Pottery Barn people) have picked up your work for licensing. Do you worry you might get so caught up in the commercialisation of your work that you lose the very essence of time and peace that have presumably led to its creation? 
That’s a very astute question. And the answer is both yes and no. The truth is that the commercial work has already gotten in the way. I did a lot of the design work for the Target products in particular. And for several days before each major deliverable I would spend whole days at the computer preparing image files and would often forego my daily walk.

I also found it hard over the last year to quickly shift from left-brain activities like meeting deliverable deadlines, to right-brain activities like being attentive on my walks and then really seeing my found object so that I could photograph it in an original way. I believe it is possible to train the brain to quickly shift between these two modes, but I haven't gotten there yet. However, I am not so concerned about this for the long run. The piling up of two major retail launches occurring simultaneously is not likely to happen again. I hope there will be more opportunities like these in the future, but as long they are reasonably staggered, I am confident I can have my cake and eat it too. 

My book's got your dead sparrow on it. Is that a first for you? 
Is it my first image on a book cover? No. Is it my first dead animal photo on a book cover? Yes. I think I have sold three images to publishers for book covers, and probably about half a dozen images for book covers to individuals who are self publishing. The STILL images have been used in more ways than I could have ever imagined. Some of the examples that pop to mind include: animation characters for kid’s educational videos, an LGBT poster, Royal Opera banners, Smithsonian lectures, 2 master’s theses, Trend catalogues, product packaging, wine labels, company logos, magazine covers, and countless tattoos.

What's the story of this particular unfortunate bird? 
This little fox sparrow hit our glass door. I still feel kind of bad about it. We’ve lived in our current home for ten years. We would get the occasional bird that hits the glass windows, but it was fairly rare. And they were often dazed, but not killed. Then, two years ago, I had the windows professionally cleaned for the first time. And to make matters worse, I did it in spring, right when all the migratory birds were passing through our area.

Well, it was sort of a blood bath. In the previous eight years we’d only had maybe six bird deaths, but that spring, we probably had six in a matter of weeks. I vowed to never get my windows cleaned again.

There's a lot of death in STILL. Would you like to comment? 
There is indeed. An Italian art zine publisher recently produced a zine on death, and asked me to submit some dead animal photos. So I went through my archive and found over forty images of dead animals. I had no idea I had that many. It should be obvious, but focusing on nature does not always mean Monet water lilies and Van Gogh sunflower fields.

Everything in nature dies, and if you spend enough time there, dead things simply become part of the landscape, and coming across them becomes part of experiencing that landscape. They are often some of my favourite images—with a lot of peacefulness, beauty and grace. In all cases, the animals were found already deceased, and, I hope you agree, have been respectfully commemorated.

Will you get bored with it? Do you have other projects in your back pocket? 
Another insightful question. Will I get bored? Maybe. Probably. Some day. But I’m not yet. Maybe I’ll become like a crazy cat lady, and instead of 27 cats, I’ll have 27 years of doing daily STILL images. Doing STILL has been such an unexpected life enhancer, in part I think because of the hyper-attentiveness it requires, that I am in no hurry to quit. But I am in my fifth year now, and I am feeling the itch to change it up in order to continue to grow creatively.

I don’t have any brilliant projects in my back pocket. I wish I did, I have tried out a few ideas, but nothing has stuck yet. I can’t decide if I will evolve this project or if I will put a period on it by commemorating it with a book. Ultimately, I would like to create something similar in its dailiness, but new in its form and expression.

Above: The making of the Birdkill cover image!

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Birdkill And Making War Cool

If you needed proof I am truly ancient, I know what these computers are.

One of the things I love best about the Internet is how it started. The DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Project Agency, part of the US Department of Defence) network was designed to survive a nuclear holocaust and still retain the capability to hit back at the Russians - all part  of a neat piece of thinking which, handily, answers to the acronym of MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea, which was really quite nice and simple, was to let the Soviets know that if they hit first and succeeded, Uncle Sam would retain the ability to hit back and get 'em even if they scored a nuclear bullseye. To do that, you needed a network that could, literally, withstand a series of nuclear strikes. And so we have the Internet.

These days there are some shrill denials of this fact and attempts to rewrite history a little ("No way, guy. We always intended the Internet to benefit all of humanity. We didn't do that bad stuff. That's so not us."), but there is crucial surviving testimony that very much backs up the MAD aim of the ARPANET.

The Americans may have invented the toilet seat, but it took a Brit to put a hole in it. Tim Berners-Lee was the man who invented the 'Web', the Hypter Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that makes the Internet more useful than just some connections between computers. Funnily enough, he's quite contrite about the //, which was merely a programming convention at the time and represents two bytes of wasted communication in every browser call.

And so we take this essentially evilly-intended technology and we turn it into a vehicle for watching dogs ride robot vacuum cleaners and making videos of kids unpacking toys. It's the ultimate sticking of a flower into the army's gun barrels. It's cool when we can turn bad tech into fun tech.

DARPA may like to dress up what it does as fluffier than inventing new ways to murder people, but war is war. Throughout, it has consistently flirted with human augmentation and eugenics programs, including a number of strands that explore the use of genetics in such efforts. The Hamilton Institute in Birdkill is, sadly (as I have said before) not really far fetched at all: there are programs in place today that make the bonkers place in the book appear so sensible, it's virtually staid.

DARPA is spending multiple billions of dollars annually in these research programs, some of which are very worrying indeed. Truth being stranger than fiction, the stuff these guys are investing in actually makes Birdkill's mad scientist Lawrence Hamilton seem perfectly sane and normal.

So there we have it. The people who created the Internet are now working on super-humans. I only hope we'll find as creative a way of exploiting their inventions...

Birdkill, by the way, went 'live' on Amazon today. So do feel free to nip off and buy your copy. You can also find it on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo and all other fine online ebook retailers as well as in paperback.