Art in a time of war

Photo by  Samuel Branch  on  Unsplash

Something happened to me back in November that I can’t seem to shake. A simple interaction over on my weekly mailing list (sent every Tuesday to an elite group of my readers). It was back on the day of the American Midterm elections. 

Those of you who know me will know just how obsessive I can get about American politics. It’s a compulsion. It’s like watching sports, except there are no clear winners and somehow we all lose. But I’m very invested in it. I blame Martin Sheen.

Anyway, as America went to the polls, I couldn’t help but reach out to my predominantly American mailing list with a small request. As I wrote in my mail:

“I love the States. The culture of your land runs through me like candy corn. You know how so many Americans consider themselves Anglophiles? Well, consider me the opposite. My favourite bands are American. My favourite authors. Most of my favourite films and tv shows. Hell, I even studied American Politics at University. I consider Aaron Sorkin to be almost at deity level.

So, and please do take this with the greatest of respect (and with the full knowledge this might earn me a few angry responses), as someone who loves your country so much, please can I implore all of you who are Stateside to go and do your best to go out today and vote to save it? It feels increasingly like you guys are standing at some kind of last chance saloon, and I’ll be staying up most of the night tonight to see if you make it through. Hell, if you mail me back to tell me you’ve done so, I’ll even send you a free ebook.”

I sent it. My initial fears that I had opened up a can of American brand gammon on my own arse were swiftly quashed. I had a number of quite lovely responses from readers excited to get out to the polls, some even taking me up on that free book. As the results came in and were not too shabby, there were even a few elated and relieved readers mailing me their stories. And my unsubscribe rate from that particular mail remained fairly low. All told, a good thing.

But, of course, I did get one.

“Guess I’m on the other side and now you've brought this to the fiction I read. You have literally lost me.”

I sent a cordial response, but the tone of that reply, it’s something that’s gotten under my skin in the weeks since. In particular, it’s that one line – “now you've brought this to the fiction I read” – that grabbed me. It brought to mind a lyric from an old Skunk Anansie song I perhaps didn’t understand fully at the time, but which I do now – ‘Yes, it’s fucking political. Everything’s political.’

I consider myself to be a pretty political person, even if I’ve long ago given up on the notion of online debate as a means to resolve the stark differences in our society. But I’m a writer. A writer of genre fiction about killer storms, space monsters and telepaths, yes, but a writer nonetheless. It might not be right out there, front and centre, but politics is key to the stories that I write, and to the characters who live them.

Then yesterday, I had a quick check of my books to see if there were any new reviews, and WOWSERS. This is from the UK Amazon listing for Sleepwalk City.

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Apparently I need to brush up on my concept of Western European Identity. I love this review, more than I can say. It's hard to choose a favourite part, but I'm going to go for the errant comma in the third sentence. I’m going to go ahead and assume that for the most part, it’s not going to cost me any sales, and those it might would probably not end up as part of ‘my tribe.’

The Blood on the Motorway trilogy is, at its heart, a story about the battle between good and evil. Not based on any mythological gods or great powers, but on people. It’s about the decisions we make, and the way we approach things. We choose, every day. A thousand small choices, and each of those speaks to who we are as people. Do you approach the world with empathy, or with concern only for yourself? For characters like Tom, Leon, Mira, Burnett, Jen, and the others, it’s these choices that inform who they are, and which rebuild or destroy the fragile world around them. It’s that, personal choice, which decides the balance between good and evil in those stories.

As I’m editing Sunrise, my next novel, I’m seeing the same question play out, albeit on a bigger canvas. But at its heart, I’m still trying to work out that chasm between empathy and its hollow opposite. It’s a story about where we might be heading, about the consequences of the terrible mistakes we seem to be making right now, and how it’ll be choices that get us out of it, in the end. But with space monsters. And telepaths.

I’m not saying that you can’t sit at the opposite end of the spectrum to me and enjoy my books. I welcome everyone. You might disagree with me on, well, everything, and still like my books. That’s great, because my books are not me, and I’m not my books. But I’m not going to entertain for one second the notion of ‘not bringing politics into it’. Because politics is there, in every choice we make. It all goes back to empathy. It’s not ‘keep your politics out of it’, it’s ‘don’t challenge my politics because I’m not comfortable with that.’ And that’s a whole other thing. It’s a choice.

Incidentally, if you’d like to join the mailing list and get weekly updates, a free copy of my first novel, Blood on the Motorway, a free short story, and much more, you can sign up below. Go on, you know you want to.

Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining my mailing list or read along at Wattpad. Oh, and I’ve got a Patreon. Sign up for free books, a free weekly short story, and much more