The Unfinished Literary Agency in fiction, and in fact…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Unfinished

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional entity which I’ve used in a few of my own stories. It’s based above Hotblack Desiato’s property agency in Islington, which actually exists, by virtue of the owner being a Douglas Adams fan. I can almost forgive the guy being a property agent because of that alone. I like to imagine he gets the irony of being one of the professions loaded onto the B Ark when the Golgafrinchans rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My fictional agency exists to tell the stories of those who are unable to tell them. As Paul Auster once said, “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” So the Unfinished Literary Agency employs writers to tell the stories of others, which is pretty much what writers do anyway.

So I wondered if such a place might exist online. Surely, there would be lots of people who have stories, and many writers grateful of ideas? Well, that’s why there are ghostwriters, of which I am one. But my motivation for writing is more than money, of which there is very little. For me, it’s the reward of having someone tell me how much they enjoyed something I wrote.

An example in the public domain, is my award-winning children’s story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie. It was written when I was lodging with a family while I was homeless, and the family dog died. As someone who sees animals as people, I saw Jake’s passing as that of a family member, not a pet. I remembered losing many animal people of my own and not being able to find a coping mechanism. Eventually, that came in the form of Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, by Virginia Ironside. Like me, she saw the loss of an animal person, rather than a replaceable pet. But those most affected by the loss of a family member are invariably children, who might be unable to express or understand their grief. I remembered again, not being able to find anything when I was a kid. So that’s how the children’s book came about, and it’s been variously praised for how it deals with life’s losses and changes, through the eyes of a girl and her talking dog. Anyway, if your animal friend dies, there’s a book for that.

One of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory is called String Theory: It was written for (and therefore, by) a young lady I met via her mum, again, when I was homeless. The young girl was at a transitory stage in life, where she was about to move to secondary school, with all of the internal changes which someone of that age will also have to deal with. She was a little bit lost, so I (she) wrote String Theory, which is about a puppet girl on strings, who learns to fly.

I had to conclude that there is no real or virtual online place which does what The Unfinished Literary Agency does, to tell the stories of others. If such a place were to exist, there must be so many untold stories to feed it: Children and adults alike, facing challenging situations, which fiction might help them to see and understand in a different way; the terminally ill could be given immortality, people could become known and remembered. But such an agency would need a staff of purely altruistic writers like me. And there are many who ghostwrite like me. The unfortunate truth is, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency couldn’t be monetised, so it would have to operate on charity alone.

People have asked me how things might have been different if I’d started writing earlier. If I’d gained a degree in literature, then gone straight into writing as a professional. The simple answer is, well it didn’t fucking happen like that, did it? In fact, the main catalyst for me becoming a writer, was when I was homeless, without possessions and with nothing else to do. It turned out I’m pretty good at it by all accounts. And by living a life before I came out as a writer, I gained experience. I lived the stories which I can now tell, and I met the characters which I can now inhabit, while developing my own. I’ve been complimented on the depth of some of my characters. That’s because, like most writers, my stories have a part of me in them. And I’ve put other people I know into stories too, with The Unfinished Literary Agency, and The Human Lending Library, from Reflections of yesterday.

In yet more stories of mine, there are protagonists and narrators who are writers themselves. In some of these, the fictional writer’s actions make the story more real: Writing is art, after all, and the beauty of an individual piece is often to be found in the unique marks left by the human artist. One such story is the title track from The Perpetuity of Memory. Another, The difference engine, will be published in early July.

I’m already a ghostwriter, for stories I write for other people and which are published without bearing my name. With stories like A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, and String Theory, the arrangement was symbiotic: I told someone else’s story, by writing a story of my own. As a writer, I was given an idea and turned it into a publishable story, which the person I was writing for was then able to see in print. In a couple of cases, that person bought a copy of the book containing their story, then arranged privately with me to send it to me, to sign and return. Others have asked for this, even though they’re not in any of the stories. While I’m still on the literary fringes, this is something I have time to do and it’s something I enjoy. Because it’s another thing which is more than money: It’s a personal touch, which people appreciate.

So far, I’ve avoided politics. But in making another prediction (and I’ve been pretty much spot on previously), I’m predicting a Universal Basic Income to be part of Labour’s manifesto for a second parliamentary term. If so, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency could become real, with writers more able to work for a greater good with a reliable minimum income in place. Until then, it will remain a purely fictional place.

So for now, The Unfinished Literary Agency has but one writer in residence. But as I’m not driven by money, I will accept commissions. I’ll write the stories of others, free of charge, and both parties gain a little warm feeling, through helping someone else.

And for as long as I’m writing, I’ll always be happy to sign copies of my books.

The Perpetuity of Memory; A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie; and The Paradoxicon (my original, semi-autobiographical novel) are available now. My next sci-fi book, Cyrus Song, is due for publication around October.

The taxonomy of ghosts

THE WRITER’S LIFE

ghostwriter

From a CulturedVultures article: Ghostwriters: The Horror Story of the Publishing World?

Three areas of my life clashed today. I was researching a freelance article I was writing for a stage school and waiting for the client to answer a question. Having the patience of an impala (they’re very impatient), I wandered off mentally and read about something else. Given that I subscribe to the idea of some sort of afterlife based on quantum science, it was appropriate that my random Wikipedia article was about ghosts.

Random Wiki entries can be a great source of ideas for stories and at the very least, I always learn something new. I’m still writing “Cardboard Sky” in the background to all the freelance work and the Wikipedia article included types of ghosts. My latest story is taking so long to write because I’m busy with the freelance writing and I’m editing my anthology. But also because I created a rod for my back with Echo Beach being so well-received. So Cardboard Sky is definitely going to be a good story and if I get it finished in time, the 25th and final tale in The Perpetuity of Memory.

Cardboard Sky is quite a complex story, so it’s been tricky making it work without it being too challenging. As with all my stories, I want to affect the reader and make them think, but not confuse them, other than with an invitation to speculate. The story concerns a man who dies, which isn’t a spoiler, rather than one of the anchors of the story. It’s then partly told from the perspective of the ghost he becomes. One of the other anchors is a boy called George, whom our character is curious about. The magic of fiction is that this character is attending a sort of ghost school, and it was the three-way clash which made me decide to put him in a stage school, so that he can learn which role of ghost acting will suit his haunting the best. With everything else I have on my desk, Cardboard Sky is still a couple of weeks away, so have an excerpt:

First contact was somewhat fraught: We’d reached a stage at school where we needed to choose specialist subjects. We’d grasped all the foundation modules, like An Introduction to Life, Key Stage 3; Elemental Dimensions (there are four); and A foundation Course in Invisibility (“Is there anyone else in here?”). I’d read many books, including “Jamie’s How to Not Eat”, “Mr Vertigo”, by Paul Auster; and “Tales of Ordinary Madness”, by Charles Bukowski. The latter two I was familiar with from what seemed to be Life, Key Stage 2. Which made me wonder: What was Stage 1? In any case, after the foundation modules, we had to pick two more specialist ones.

Having always been a frustrated actor, I’d chosen two modules from the Performing Arts section. When it came to actually getting a job, the audition lists were many and lengthy. For my debut role, I needed to decide on my character type. Although I was growing desperate for work by then, I didn’t want to end up being type-cast. Which provided a quandary in itself: To avoid being ever associated with one kind of role, I had to be not very good in my first performance, which in itself might lose me my big break. I read through the various roll calls for the spirited, trying to find a type to fit my style:

The “Crisis Apparition” is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mother outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. I hadn’t even been aware of my own moment of actually dying, so I figured I’d missed the train on that one.

The Reluctant Dead” are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In movies, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home. I might have been somewhat reluctant to be dead but I had at least accepted that I was dead. So this wasn’t for me.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Key Stage 4? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they fear leaving what is familiar to them. Neither really applied to me.

In the “Unfinished Business” category there were a number of roles, mainly altruistic: A father might return to make sure his children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. All of my business was completed. At the other end of the spectrum was the “Vengeful ghost”: Perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer. Although the concept had some appeal, as far as I knew, I hadn’t been murdered. And I had no bones to pick with George.

Residual ghosts” usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time. Apart from anything else, I didn’t know my final hours.

Finally, the “Intelligent ghost”: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George, so this seemed like the gig for me.

Like Wikipedia, I’m educational. If no-one likes the story (and I doubt that), at least they’ve learned something about the various kinds of ghosts.

So today’s clash was a pleasant one, of three things I enjoy, and furthering each: Freelance writing, fiction writing and learning through research. When most days are ruled by the ever-competing unholy trinity of anxiety, depression and insomnia, it’s nice to get a break. It’s on days like this that I remember why I made my mental health issues my friends: I’m stuck with them anyway and when I get days like this, the manic side of me drowns out the depression.

It’s that big red button again and the question of whether I’d press it (No). If my mental illness is what gives me this thirst for knowledge and the ability to write creatively, I don’t want to switch it off, even though some times are bad. I just hope I can remind myself of that every time things take a dip. And yes, smoking weed helps: It helps my anxiety but it also makes me more curious and creative. The high IQ can be a poisoned chalice but it was a contributing factor to what goes on in my head nowadays.

I’m a writer and a ghostwriter. In either role, I can be anyone I want. I can be any kind of ghost.