Most Schlock covers don’t objectify a fantasy female warrior (they do men, demons, ghosts, monsters and aliens too), but it’s always nice to see my name on the front of a webzine (and print quarterly) where I feel at home. I like to think it’s the kind of cult pulp fiction people might pick up in WH Smith at a spaceport in some alternative universe.
DIARY OF A SKINNY KID
What’s beneath the headline is the story of everything below the neck. Once a story breaks, trust is lost, like a cradle from a tree. I learned that as a journalist for a local newspaper, before taking a more sedentary and solitary path as a freelancer, writing mainly about the arts and humanities. Sometimes I cross over into fiction, but I try to blur the edges when stories have a basis in past experience.
The internet means I can write and do most of my research from home, and digital printing democratised publishing, helping me and thousands of other writers become published authors. Previously the only way was vanity publishing, where the writer took a leap of faith and paid for stacks of their own books from a traditional printer. With editors removed from the publishing machine, it’s pumped out a lot of shit. As a result, a niche industry has developed underground.
The rage among the entitled classes are bespoke, one-off printed editions of books, a market served by boutique publishers, who are always striving for something new and different. The most exclusive in this rarefied world is Mobius, who can somehow gather sought-after cult writers better than any little black book in the underworld of pulp fiction.
Few writers have one or more novels in them. Most have a collection of short stories which make up their own fictional autobiography. There’s still a big difference between publishing your own novel and having a publishing house, but there’s a far greater difference between self-publishing your own shorts (as simple as posting them on a blog), and having them accepted for outside publication, whether it be online or in print. Writing short stories is more difficult than writing a book, simply because the author has fewer words.
The editor of an anthology or periodical, online or in print, is like a conductor, a Master of Ceremony. The captains of those ships are curators and innkeepers, of works and writers who might not otherwise find themselves together.
I’ve had many stories published by third parties, online, in magazines, and in cult collections. I’ve published my own novels in paperback, but apart from the quarterlies, I’ve not had a short story published in an anthology (although I’ve published two of my own). Published periodically but not permanently, my stories are my own and those of others I never chose to be with. This is where the story starts, when I saw an ad for Mobius in a friend’s university rag mag.
My friend is a psychology student from UCL, on a placement with Lewisham Hospital, just up the road from me. 30 years my junior, we’d been friends since she was at school, through consequence and convenience when the weather was fair, and sometimes she’s stayed over when it rains, sharing stories only we could tell, beyond the birth dates of children and the expiry of parents in our tattoos. Now she spoon-feeds me, as we talk about our lives and she gives me ideas for new stories.
She didn’t like red horror, so this would be a psychological story, more black mirror. Nothing new there, but I was trying to branch out further with my writing, and wanted something I might make into a screenplay, a story within a story, which could turn in on itself and stand up to repeated reading. A story which might be suited to the stage. Mobius could be that.
The ad was brief, a few lines in amongst vacancies for student flat shares, campus clubs and guinea pigs:
Mobius is launching a student arts council project, and we’re looking for volunteers and contributors. We are inviting submissions from authors which tell the stories of the individuals we all are. Successful entries will be published in a unique anthology, which forms the centrepiece for a planned exhibition at The British Library, to raise awareness for our ongoing and future humanities work. Entitled ‘Fictional Reality’, we aim to present something which could only exist in fiction (or the mind) as real. We want the viewer to confront the realism of fiction.
Fictional realism is the theory that in an infinite universe, everything which can happen, has happened. All fiction – places and people – are created as they’re written, then exist as chance would predict they must, in a multiverse of infinite possibilities.
There was an email address, so I sent off a query letter (basically, I’d be interested in contributing, could you send me the editorial guidelines please?) My friend had returned to her student digs, so while I was waiting, I continued writing.
All stories are tales within others, when each contains a part of the writer. Whether it be a mannerism of a character, or a location in a familiar distant dream, the writers of short fiction tell their bigger story in parts, which don’t necessarily fit together, in the way some people don’t when they first meet.
It’s a lonely existence, being a writer, so to be curated into a fiction anthology would mean my story was part of a whole made of many other people. Being a writer suits me, because I can work on my own. I miss the human contact, not of any workplace, but in an outside life. All I have is my psychologist friend, and she’s rarely around now she’s of legal drinking age. Acceptance into this anthology would help the reclusive writer get out and meet new people.
Writers don’t all like to get together in real life (the one outside this writing life, the bigger story beyond), so the publisher has to think about a seating plan. Authors are unlikely to ever dine together, but the order of the stories in the anthology should reflect the kind of conversation which might be expected around an unlikely dining table.
Anyone reading that book in The British Library would be privy to a conversation between minds who wouldn’t normally meet, because they never met, only in the collaboration of a secret world spewing its guts into a bowl. With each story carrying its character, the whole volume should speak an interesting narrative, a whole of many parts, which individually have bigger stories to tell.
The chapters in this exclusive Mobius project would make up a unique life, a new one. So does any collected works anthology, where something can be one of a collection of unique things. I wondered what Mobius could do which would make this venture truly unique, unlike anything before.
Away from the modern democracy of digital, the traditional methods of printing still thrive, even the fine art of letterpress, where galleys of text are assembled by hand before impressing by mechanical platen into the paper. Before print became technology, it was a skilled craft which allowed the fast distribution of information through multiple copies. The only truly unique printed documents are antiquated texts and scrolls, hand-written by artisan scribes. That couldn’t be the truly unique centrepiece promised for The British Library, as it had been done before.
I’ve had many writing desks, many temporary, some in public libraries, others bolted to the floor, and all doubling as dining tables. The one I’m sitting at now is the horse for my typewriter, where many of the stories only me and the psychologist could tell are hidden in a dark web; and where I was invited to meet an agent for Mobius, who I assumed would be an arts student from UCL. An email arrived on my desktop, inviting me to meet a guy called Rupert Surname in the reading room of The British Library.
Rupert hadn’t described himself, leaving him to my imagination. I didn’t know his full name, so I couldn’t look him up on social media. Most people called Rupert at university would probably revert to Facebook’s roots, and use it as an in-campus social network. I didn’t know how tall he was, how old (although I assumed student-age), or what he’d be wearing. I’d ruled out a red jersey and yellow-checked trousers with matching scarf.
The reading room at The British Library is huge, a cathedral to reading and learning. There are hundreds of desks, some grouped socially, like wooden beasts of burden for books and computers. Other desks roam alone, seeking light beneath a window, or preferring the solitude offered by walls of bookshelves. There are nomadic chairs, ridden by students to feast around a beast, a camp fire, or left at a universe laid flat in MDF. Some were tethered to unattended laptops, while the riders smoked outside the realm of fictional realism.
Among the menagerie of mascots left to guard unattended windows on other worlds, there was a Rupert, naked and white: A stuffed bear, sans his usual modesty, sitting next to a laptop about the same height as him. Anyone at eye level could have read what I did on the screen:
Your story must clothe the bear. His jersey will need two sheets of material for the body and one sheet for each arm. The bear’s trousers require two sheets in total, and the length of his scarf is to be your own space, to weave as long as you wish. Please submit the first three sheets for preview.
Was this a student’s own project? A student of what? Fashion, knitting, philosophy? It gave me another idea for the story I was already writing. My journey to King’s Cross hadn’t been for nothing, as I had a plot device.
A sheet of A4 cartridge paper holds around 500 words from my typewriter, so I’d already knitted most of Rupert’s upper half, the first three pages I’d normally send to a prospective publisher. I sent it to Rupert Surname, and queried whether they’d like a synopsis of the whole story. As mine was to be one part of a curated volume, the final work would only be complete once all the contributors’ chapters had been chosen. The publisher retained license of freedom for the final work. If my own life outside this story was one they could influence, by placing it among the tales of others, then I was happy to be guided.
Although The British Library was outside my comfort zone (away from home), in the brief time I’d been there, I’d not felt alienated. There I was, surrounded by knowledge and almost silence, alone but not, part of many stories unfolding in one place as I wrote my own. If Rupert invited me there again, I’d be glad of the excuse to visit. If not, then perhaps to view the final exhibit at the end of this Mobius project. Even if I wasn’t a part of it, I’d still been on the stage where it was produced.
While I waited for a response, I worked on another story I’d been writing for the general market. It was about an understudy actor, stumbling home and ringing on the wrong doorbell. Fictional realism was the music of chance, when my doorbell rang.
It was my UCL psychology student from Lewisham. It was still rag week and there was a new edition of the student mag, with a pulp fiction supplement. And my story was in it.
The story I was writing for Mobius and the British Library, the one which was meant to be exclusive; tales of individuals making a unique whole life for visitors to gaze at; the book produced in some way which made it truly unique, which was meant to enclose my own story, safe from reproduction, was now in a photocopied pulp comic; and I was reading it just as you are now, and just like anyone so inclined, not to seek out something completely new and singular, but happy to read cheap, disposable fiction on the underground.
“What,” I wondered, “about The British Library?”
“Oh, that’s still going ahead,” she said. “I’m taking your story there.”
“What? But I never finished it.”
“And you never will. But you have already.”
“The truly unique nature of the project is in the way the story will be presented, in a way which can’t be reproduced.”
Beneath the forest and savannah of the reading room at The British Library, is a network of tunnels lined with shelves. Everything which is published in Britain is held there: one copy of every book, magazine, newspaper, musical score, screenplay, script, and even university rag mags. Even the poorest writer, with no sales, can take comfort in knowing that a copy of their story is held in that subterranean cavern for reference, knowledge and learning. It’s a world off-limits to the reading room, but readers can request a copy of anything ever published, which is retrieved by a robot and delivered to the student’s desk. We are never truly dead until we’re forgotten, and published authors will live in that underground publishing world for as long as The British Library still stands.
“So,” I wondered, “what’s so unique about the curation?”
“Well,” she said, “words can be copied.” Of course, even if it’s an ancient scribe plagiarising the bible to make his own version. “And so can DNA.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Would you donate your own skin to have your story told?”
“Why would I?”
“It would be a way of telling your story as very much your own, if it was printed on sheets of your own skin. Bound into a book, with 49 other shades of flesh, wouldn’t that make for quite the publishing sensation?”
“For starters, I wouldn’t do that. Donate my skin? Maybe to a burns victim, but for people to stare at in an exhibition, as I’m stretched over some sort of frame?”
“Your skin grafts would be bound with others in the book.”
“What, and people would just be able to flick through the pages, looking at my story, all stretched and laid bare?”
“Among others, and together you tell the whole story.”
“In a book which anyone at all can just finger? I thought this was exclusive. Surely such a unique thing should be encased in glass?”
“No-one could read the book in its entirety. It’s not the kind of book you’d borrow from any normal library.”
“Well, I wouldn’t donate my skin. That contains me and protects me.”
“As does mine, as a student. That’s how comes I’m part of the final story. Student financing, pulp fiction sales; those only cover accommodation and books, not the life I want to live.” She looked down at her white coat. “So I sold my skin. I want to pay you back for all the favours you’ve done me.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I’m far more comfortable if one story is told upon another, in a safe place where one can meet like-minded people. Like a glass cage at The British Library, where my body can entwine with others for public entertainment, but remain safe. You’ll be there. Your story will be there, writhing in and out of others, your words coming together like so many authors of others’ stories, trapped in a box and in their own skin, while people file past and gawk at an artistic representation of you and others at work. Reality stripped naked in fiction, Q.E.D. Mind if I take a shower?”
I pushed my chair out of her way. As she stood up, I noticed a new tattoo above her collar:
Diary of a skinny kid
What’s beneath the headline
is the story of everything below the neck…
© Steve Laker, 2019
Google lists all 60-odd stories I’ve had published in my favourite cult pulp fiction mag.