“Under The Arcade”: my first novel

So: it took the best part of three years, eight rewrites and many sleepless nights – but I’m happy to say that, as of autumn 2013, I’m finally publishing my first completed novel. It’s called Under The Arcade, it clocks in at 53,000 words (186 pages in print) and it’s best described as a piece of literary fiction.

You can buy it in paperback here: http://goo.gl/2KAr6f

You can buy it in paperback or Kindle format at Amazon.co.uk: http://goo.gl/XnLraH

Novel or novella?

Under The Arcade book coverPerhaps my first novel should in fact be called a novella. It’s tough to say, because the classifications for novels and novellas are hazy at best. It all comes down to a subjective matter of word count. Literary agents will tell you that a novel must be 80,000 words or longer; anything less is a novella. But some established bodies – the British Fantasy Society, for example – consider 40,000 words to be the point where the novella ends and the novel begins. In his famous 1927 treatise Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster declared that a “fictitious prose work over 50,000 words” should be categorised as a novel. So where to turn when deciding which camp your 53,000-word manuscript falls into?

Personally, I consider my book to be a long novella and I wrote it with this format in mind. It has no divisions or chapter breaks. It deals with one character and one emotional viewpoint. It pays particular focus to place and description. Some would say these are typical traits of a novella. Warren Cariou, Professor of English at the University of Manitoba, sums it up best:

“The novella…usually lacks the subplots, the multiple points of view and the generic adaptability that are common in the novel. It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.”

Beating the blank screen

I’ve always wanted to write a full-length piece of prose but something has always held me back. A lack of inspiration, a lack of confidence, a lack of commitment to see the job through: something always seemed to be lacking and I knew that authoring a novel was no job to take on lightly. So I waited and waited, all through my 20s, until I felt I had something to say and the right tools to say it with.

One day in 2010, I read A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean, 1976). It was very short – a hundred pages or so – but it was incredibly moving and expertly written. When I closed the back cover, I said to myself: “If I could write a hundred pages of that calibre, I’d be over the moon. It’s just a case of capturing 25,000 words or so. What, really, is stopping you?”

That night, I sat down at a blank screen – the same blank screen that’s defeated me many times before – and started to write Under The Arcade. It quickly took on its own momentum and came to a natural end, three years later, at 50,000+ words.

The keystones

Under The Arcade charts one day in the life of Jackson, a young man who returns to his hometown on the anniversary of his brother’s death. On the hottest day of the summer, he roams around his old neighbourhood – trying to process his grief and make sense of the past.

Sutton ArcadeThe town he wanders through is a lightly fictionalised version of Sutton, the borough in south-west London where I grew up. Sutton is one of the keystones of my novel and it’s almost a character in its own right. It acts as a catalyst for some of the themes and subjects I wanted to explore: memory, nostalgia, regret, ennui.

The title of my book refers to a glass-roofed arcade that still stood in Sutton when I was a boy in the 1980s. Built in 1926, it was a unique piece of inter-war history that gave the town some added architectural charm. When it was knocked down and replaced by a Virgin Megastore in the 1990s (thank you Richard Branson), I remember being shocked that the Sutton locals – and the borough council – could so willingly erase such an asset from their town.

To my mind, Sutton has declined rapidly in the last 20 years. You only have to take a short walk down the high street to find boarded-up shops and angry, antisocial people. I felt I had to use it as a cultural backdrop; not only because I spent my childhood there and know it like the back of my hand – but also because Sutton’s vanished arcade seemed to symbolise everything that’s eating away at the town: a lack of community, a loss of pride, a total indifference to the past, present or future.

Urban decay is a prevalent feature in many British towns. I hoped, with Sutton – which is never explicitly named in my text – to strike a chord with anyone else out there who feels like their neighbourhood’s falling apart, brick by brick. Even as I write this, the things I used to love about Sutton are being torn down. There’s an old Victorian wall close to my parents’ house that’s well over a hundred years old (described on p.54 of my novel, if you’re interested). When I drove past it just the other week, half of it had been demolished. And the old primary school pond that used to sit behind it (p.50) was gone, too.

Another keystone of my novel is the subject of grief: how it works on the mind and how it colours perception. In Under The Arcade, Jackson is mourning the death of his younger brother Sean. He wants to revisit his past but at the same time he wants to avoid certain parts of it. He holds back the memory of Sean for as long as possible – and when it finally demands his attention (see the boxing sequence at p.98), he’s keen to suppress it and move on to other things.

The Sportswriter book coverThis is one of the effects I was hoping to create: the sense that surface details are masking the true depths of an inner struggle. I wanted Jackson to walk around in a self-imposed daydream, seeing the world through a distracted filter that occasionally gives way, revealing the deeper turmoil hidden beneath.

Another novel that does this well is The Sportswriter (Richard Ford, 1986). In that book, the lead character tries to cope with his recent divorce and the death of his eldest son. He finds himself in a restless, “dreamy” state in the suburbs of New Jersey – focusing on the routines of daily life, in an effort to heal and forget. But the sense of loss is always there in the background, gnawing away at his composure. Ford captures this perfectly, largely through inference and the things he leaves unsaid. It was a memorable style of storytelling and it’s always stuck with me.

The inspirations

Major inspirations for the tone and style of Under The Arcade would include the likes of Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway, 1925) and Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man, 1964); two excellent novellas that both take place across a single day, relating the thoughts and experiences of one individual. My story’s written in the third-person present tense, an approach that took me a little while to get comfortable with. I’m a big fan on John Updike, whose five Rabbit novels are nothing short of modern masterpieces. The way Updike used the present tense was truly sublime and it’s a poignant effect I wanted to incorporate into my own writing. In Updike’s own words:

“I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I don’t know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense.”

Rabbit Redux book coverI’ve always been fond of fiction that takes place in the suburbs, too. American writers are particularly adept at this subgenre – Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, 1961; Young Hearts Crying, 1984), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar, 1963) and John Cheever (The Wapshot Chronicle, 1954) immediately spring to mind. As do most of the short stories of Raymond Carver. I love the tree-lined streets of suburbia and the restless, angst-ridden literature inspired by it. So it was an easy choice to set my first novel there. We have no shortage of leafy suburbs in Britain, so I wonder why more of our novelists don’t write about them?

Another big influence I have to mention is William Faulkner and his astonishing 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury. If you can get beyond Part 1 of this book, narrated in stream-of-consciousness by a raving lunatic, your efforts will be rewarded. It’s one of those books that can genuinely change the way you look at life – especially Part 2, an achingly beautiful piece of writing about the inner strife of Quentin Compson.

Quentin is a young man studying at Harvard, who takes a long walk through Cambridge on the day of his death. As he roams through the city, his thoughts churn between the past and the present in some of the most exquisite prose I’ve ever come across. I’ve read many novels in the last thirty-odd years and Quentin’s section in The Sound and the Fury is the only passage of literature that’s ever made me want to break down and cry. It’s powerful stuff!

A final word on style

I want to close with a quick comment on the style of writing you’ll find in Under The Arcade. I chose very consciously to adopt dense, florid description for my first novel. I did this because I admire writing that demands something back from the reader. Creative writing gurus are always advising new authors to “write what you know” and craft something that you yourself would want to read. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

I’m sure, however, that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. One agent who rejected my manuscript told me: “To get away with this level of detail, you need to earn your stripes as a writer beforehand: and you haven’t.” The idea that description and detail was something to “get away with” really stuck in my craw, at the time. Ever since Ernest Hemingway came along with The Sun Also Rises (1926), the “less is more” approach has become the unofficial golden rule for all novelists everywhere.

The Highly Sensitive Person book coverAlthough I enjoy Hemingway’s economical style of writing, I don’t understand why it should be the template that everyone else should follow forevermore. Why shouldn’t a book swamp you with empirical detail? Novels like Under The Volcano (Malcolm Lowry, 1947) and The Alexandria Quartet (Lawrence Durrell, 1957-1960) do this to splendid effect. Why not revive the spirit of Modernism, from time to time? I’m sure it’s due for a comeback. Will Self tried something along these lines recently with Umbrella, to generally accepted success.

In my head, my lead character Jackson has what C.G. Jung called “innate sensitivity”. In today’s terms, he’d be labelled a Highly Sensitive Person. As an HSP, he’s processing exterior detail at a higher level than most and his grief is exacerbating the experience. Hence the heightened description, the magnified perception, the feeling that the outside world is infinite and overwhelming.

Maybe the desire to write in this way is a side effect of being a copywriter by trade. Every working day, I try to cram as much meaning as I can into as few words as possible. I even keep a syllable count, rarely going above three syllables per word. But when I write for pleasure, the freedom to let language run free is just too tempting to resist. I hope Under The Arcade is no less enjoyable for that. And I hope it offers the kind of escapism that factors in the pure joy of words.

But I’ll let you, the reader, be the final judge.


“My Friend Pookie”: Part 2

Here is the second instalment of “My Friend Pookie” – an experimental webcomic written by myself and illustrated by David Frankum. You can check out the first instalment right here (originally published online by Top Shelf Productions, based in the US).

In this follow-up, we return to the story of Jack… a six-year-old kid with an imaginary friend he likes to call Pookie. At the end of the first episode, Pookie went missing when Jack lost his temper. Now, Pookie has reappeared in Jack’s bedroom: but something about him is unaccountably different.

Mr Frankum came up with some wonderful artwork for Pookie #2. I love the first panel on Page 2, where Jack is yawning in bed – rendered in neon shades of chalk. Equally impressive is the way the “scrapbook” background goes from light to dark as the story is told (we were trying to strike a more sinister tone, this time around).

If you like “My Friend Pookie” so far, please get in touch and let me know your thoughts!

My Friend Pookie #2: Page 1

My Friend Pookie #2: Page 1

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 2)

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 2)

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 3)

My Friend Pookie #2 (Page 3)


an original prequel to the tempest

In a previous post, I mentioned that I once tried to write a graphic novel prequel to The Tempest. Sycorax Waning, as I called it, ground to a sad halt when my artist moved on to other things… but I still have lots of materials left on file – like concept drawings, back-stories and character profiles.

Concept art for Ariel

Concept art for Ariel, the androgynous spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

It took me a long time to create a believable story that could precede the action of The Tempest. Many nights were spent poring over the play, working backwards in time to build a consistent “origin” tale for Sycorax the witch. I also read a great deal of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as Sycorax (many will argue) shares a lot in common with Medea, the ancient Greek sorceress.

Concept art for Bruin

Concept art for Bruin, an original character I created for a prequel to The Tempest.

I was pleased with the story that eventually took shape. I’m not going to post the full plot here, as I still hope to do something with it in the future. But I am going to publish the character profiles I wrote for the project. These contain detailed breakdowns of every single character in the prequel… and give a better idea of the kind of tale I was hoping to tell.

Read all of my Character Profiles right here: Sycorax Waning_Character Profiles

Concept art for Augusto

Concept art for Augusto, a 16th century Spaniard I created for Sycorax Waning.

Let me know your thoughts on the cast of this fantasy Shakespearean prequel! Some day soon, I’ll publish the first chapter of the final script.


A short story about silverfish

Domo-kunHere’s a short comic-book script that never found a home, written several years ago on some idle afternoon. I originally sent this off to the editor at Orang Utan Comics, who agreed to supply an artist and add it to his yearly anthology. Neither happened, in the end, for reasons I can’t really remember.

I wanted to write something humorous, at the time. A short sketch with some bathos in it… a sudden switch from the exalted to the commonplace. I had just returned from visiting my parents, who live in an old Edwardian house with a ground-floor toilet that’s particularly dark and damp. Inside that chilly bathroom, I’d switched on the light and watched as dozens of small, shiny silverfish scuttled in terror back to the shadows. Another light had suddenly switched itself on inside my head: I’d been given an idea.

This silly story is called “The Charge of the Silverfish” and will probably take you about two minutes to read. I envisioned the silverfish as tubular little creatures with gnashing teeth – kind of like a cross between the Hattifatteners (from The Moomins) and a snarling Domo-kun doll.

The script can be found here: The Charge of the Silverfish_Script_R Norris

All coments are welcome…


A tale of Arabian survival

Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter

Wilfred Thesiger on his five-year journey through the desert.

Here’s the very first comic script I ever wrote. It was originally commissioned by Insomnia Publications, a small UK press going to big places back in 2009 – or so I thought, until they went dramatically bankrupt before I got paired up with an artist. This story was supposed to appear in their annual “Layer Zero” anthology… and the theme for the 2010 volume would have been “survival” (an ironic choice, really, given the publisher’s subsequent demise).

Anyway: at the time, I’d been reading “Arabian Sands” by Wilfred Thesiger (1959) – and I was mildly obsessed with the Bedouin people and the ancient deserts of The Empty Quarter. I wrote a story of survival set in the 19th century, told by an English sailor shipwrecked in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a tale of culture clash, based on a true event that Thesiger briefly mentions in his book:

“During the days that I was at Mughshin my companions often asked me for medicines. Bedu suffer much from headaches and stomach trouble. Sometimes my aspirin worked, but if not the sufferer would get someone to brand him, usually on his heels, and would announce a little later that his headache was now gone, and that the old Bedu remedies were better than the Christian’s pills.

Bedu cauterize themselves and their camels for nearly every ill. Their bellies, chests, and backs are often criss-crossed with the ensuing scars. I had heard that many years ago a British cargo steamer was ship-wrecked on the southern coast of Arabia. A few survivors were picked up by some Junuba who, hoping no doubt for a reward, took them eventually to Muscat. Camel’s milk and dates had given the Englishmen acute diarrhoea, and the Bedu, despite their protests, forcibly cauterized them. They eventually arrived at Muscat nearly killed by dysentery and this primitive treatment.” (Arabian Sands, Penguin Classics)

I called my story “Baptism of Fire”. You can read it here: Baptism of Fire_Script_R Norris

This script has never been illustrated; if there’s an eager artist out there willing to give it a go, please drop me a line. It will help if you’re familiar with Bedu dress and the Arabian landscape – or have some kind of connection with Middle Eastern culture. A tall order, perhaps!

Enjoy the story, everyone… and let me know if you liked it.


an abstract comic strip

The Angriest Dog In The WorldAt the end of this post is a simple comic strip I created, one day, after reading through a book called “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity”. The book offers up a collection of tips from David Lynch – yes, that’s the same David Lynch who brought us the likes of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway… a man who, it would seem, owes much of his success to the daily practice of Transcendental Meditation.

David Lynch is something of an enigma, as everybody knows. I love his work but at the same time I find it frustrating. His path to creative greatness was a truly unique one and as such, very difficult to follow. Abstraction and surrealism will more often kill a career than make one – and while Lynch has proved it’s perfectly possible to put a dancing midget in a TV sitcom or a psychological Kabuki demon in a feature film, if almost anyone else tried to do it… they’d probably get laughed away as self-indulgent navel-gazers. This makes me slightly wary of Lynch’s artistic advice, therefore, although “Catching the Big Fish” still makes for an inspirational read. Pick it up if you can find a copy.

One thing in the book that caught my attention was The Angriest Dog In The World, an absurdist comic strip created by Lynch between 1983 and 1992. I’d never heard of this strip before (published in the LA Reader and the Village Voice, it never appeared in the UK press) but it struck a chord with me nonetheless. What intrigued me most about it was this: Lynch only ever drew the strip once – four self-repeating images of a dog straining on a leash – but he kept it fresh for nine years, simply by updating the dialogue. His visual framework was flexible enough to allow for an almost endless stream of scenarios… but when you look at the strip itself, it seems anything but flexible; all of the hand-drawn panels are virtually identical. As a concept it’s a total paradox and yet somehow, it just works.

Something about this minimalism appealed to me, so I decided to give it a go myself. I drew a crude sequence of panels in Microsoft Paint that I felt, given the right dialogue, would always be able to tell a different story. The visuals include two floating spheres (gods? planets?), some speech bubbles… and absolutely nothing else. I called it “The Music of the Spheres”, an attempt to introduce some bathos i.e. what if the stars/constellations/heavenly bodies that hold us all in awe are, in fact, just brainless entities making stupid comments? The four-panel sequence runs like this and, in theory, would never change:

FIRST PANEL: Sphere 1 makes a comment to which Sphere 2 responds.

SECOND PANEL: both spheres stare blankly for a moment.

THIRD PANEL: Sphere 1 makes a comment that negates their conversation.

FOURTH PANEL: both spheres turn away in irritation.

My childish artwork appears below. All comments are welcome!


THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES: High above the Earth, the celestial bodies weave our fate in perfect harmony… by Russell Norris

Music of the Spheres - Panel 1Music of the Spheres - Panel 2Music of the Spheres - Panel 3Music of the Spheres - Panel 4


A Choctaw story

The Great Seal of the Choctaw NationMy mother is American. She was born and raised in Oklahoma, before she met an Englishman and emigrated to the UK in the 1970s. Her family, originally from a small town called Spiro, has given me some Native American roots: my mum is 1/8 Native American, which makes me 1/16… a tiny fraction, you might think, but it’s enough to make me eligible for membership in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

More specifically, then, this family heritage is Choctaw, the Native American tribe that gave “Oklahoma” its name (literally translated, a word meaning “red people”). The Choctaw people have a fascinating history that stretches from antiquity right up to the modern day. In one interesting episode from 1918, the Choctaw language was used as an Allied code in the First World War… because only a handful of people in the world could understand it.

I’ve always felt far removed from this strain of my DNA. Living in England, in the Old World that’s so very different to the New World, it’s easy to lose sight of my American roots – specifically the Native American side, which can feel distant and dislocated from the British culture I’ve grown up in.

In an effort to get back in touch with this Native American heritage, I did some research on Choctaw mythology and wrote a short comic script called “The Heart of Thunder”. It deals with a few figures from Choctaw legend and it’s quite sentimental in tone – borderline soppy, in fact… which is uncharacteristic for me. It felt somehow right for the story, though, so I decided to keep things that way. You can read the final script here: The Heart of Thunder_Script_R Norris

This story still needs an illustrator to truly come to life, so if anyone’s interested in lending their artistic skills – please get in touch!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.