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Promoting Creative Writing in Scotland
Douglas was born in Glasgow in 1967. He won Herald/Grolsch Question Of Style Award in 1989. Won 2nd prize Neil Gunn Writing Competition 2007. He has had short stories widely published in various magazines and anthologies. Douglas published his first novel Ultrameta in 2009. Ultrameta was nominated for the Edge Hill Short Story Award 2010 and shortlisted for the BFS best newcomer award.
His second novel “Sylvow” was published in 2010 also by Eibonvale.
Douglas's third novel "Mechagnosis" will be published by Dog Horn in Autumn 2011.
What first inspired you to write?
Hard to say, since it was a great love of mine from the moment the first teacher in school asked me to write a story, and I realised I stood on the edge of a window to a vast other world, the world of my imagination. Teaching children should be the most revered of professions, and I'd like to record my gratitude right now to two of mine I remember: Mrs Choat in primary and Mrs Hayward in secondary.
What inspires you now?
Ideas, philosophy, snippets of things that people around me say, but most of all the natural world every day, the sound of birds in Spring, or a Winter full moon, that sort of thing, the absolute wonder and enigma of what life is.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
There are too many books being written every year, and most of them are crap. So only write if you have something to say, otherwise silence is greatly underrated. Write for yourself primarily, like a diary, to try to make sense of your world, and if you succeed other people might enjoy that too, but if not then at least you will have improved your own mental health through contemplation. Socrates said "the unexamined life is not worth living". That said, be aware that the first stuff you will write you may find is too much about your own life. That is natural. But with experience you will begin to create characters out of thin air, then you will be getting somewhere. Regarding characters, the great American writer Eudora Welty said that you must always love all your characters. Even very good writers often overlook this very subtle point. In writing, you are assuming the role of God in a sense, and while I am not religious, I think it is undeniably true that whatever created us does love us, and great writers also rise to that perspective in order to throw truthful light on human life. Lastly, do your research: which means go and read great books by great writers, the real masters, and analyse how they did it.
What are you writing now?
A science fiction novel in which bees have died out (a real possibility) and robotic replacements have been created which begin to develop intelligence and free will. Martin Bax of the literary magazine Ambit told me I should write Science Fiction, and I think he has a point. September 11th 2001 showed us that the future is right now, and it needs our attention if we don't want it to go horribly wrong.
What are you reading now?
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. A desert novel, metaphysical and existential, it's making me shiver. A very well written Classic. I might not agree with the writer's outlook on life, but there is a great deal to admire and learn from in his technique.
Who is your favorite literary character?
This is your hardest question. There is probably a tendency to think of books I've read more recently, but that won't give the right answer. I think it mightbe Jean-Baptiste Clamence from The Fall by Albert Camus, a book I have re-read many times. He is also the narrator, and the way he gradually erodes the reader's comfort zone is magnificent. The protagonist in Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game or Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar might also be close seconds.
What future projects do you have planned?
Well, writing is a horrible addiction, so I'll give it up if I can cure myself of it and become Human again. If not, then there's a book in the pipeline about a lunatic asylum that is a metaphor for our planet, and another one about The Brahan Seer ("Scotland's Nostradamus").
What interests do you have outside of writing?
I trained as an architect, so three days a week I design and detail buildings and oversee their construction. It's good fun and not unrelated to writing in a way. The end products are both meant to last for centuries, or that's my intention at least!
Any last words of wisdom?
Tell the truth. In a world as deluded as this one, that in itself is almost always a revelation. Take it as a good sign when you cause offence.
Under the biological microscope, fractal geometry reveals itself as the secret structure of Life itself. Like Russian dolls, the closer we zoom in, the more we pass into repeating realms of infinite divisibility. In Ultrameta, Douglas Thompson searches for just such patterns in the confusion and social devastation of modern urban life. Ultrameta is the metropolis of all metropolises. The city we all live in, wherever we happen to be in the world. London, Glasgow, Athens, New York, Tokyo . . . the 'City of the Soul' that has grown within all of us. The time-span of the text ranges from Ancient Greece to the unnervingly familiar present, leading us to uncomfortable questions about ourselves and the life we live. It encompasses a vast emotional and social spectrum, which we plunge through as we follow the main character, Alexander Stark, through a vivid range of different identities, moving from one time and place to another in a seemingly endless cycle of death and re-emergence. What is Ultrameta? Visionary horror? Experimental surrealism? Trippy outsider art? Like Danielewski's House of Leaves, this is one of those few books that possess a core of something genuinely unusual, both in its ideas and its approach to storytelling. A tale of 'Serial Suicide' - or perhaps of immortality. A circular novel - or is it a story collection? A four-dimensional shadow of, or an enigma modelled on, Life itself? Ultrameta represents a striking development in Slipstream writing and a unique way of looking at the world.
In the city of Sylvow, brother and sister Claudia and Leo Vestra made a childhood promise to each other: he would look after the plants and she would look after the animals. Unlike most promises, both of these were kept - each in their own way. Claudia is now a vet - looking after pampered pets or putting down strays and leading a mundane life in the city. Leo, on the other hand, disenchanted with modern urban life, has abruptly abandoned his wife and disappeared into the surrounding forest, his only contact with the outside world being a sequence of dramatic and prophetic letters - increasingly convinced that a semi-sentient natural world is preparing to rebel against its human irritants. Nature is a strange thing - although we have done an amazing job of cataloguing and observing it, we still know very little about it. Nature always surprises - and always changes, especially under an external influence such as humanity's devastating effect on the environment. This book follows its cast of characters through a spectacular clash between everyday life and life on the evolutionary scale - as society dissolves and is stripped away under the onslaught of surreal environmental disaster. Douglas Thompson has dug deep into the inevitable guilt that we all feel, as a culture/species, for the disastrous state of civilization and its effect on both ourselves and the world around us - in the process touching on elements as diverse as literary surrealism, philosophical tract, horror, disaster novel and visionary science fiction.
Raymond and Arlene
The day Raymond lost his job he walked, smiling, towards Arlene in the street: holding out to her a hand-written letter, his notice of redundancy. The exhilaration of freedom or sheer hysteria gave his face such an expression that Arlene thought he must have won the Lottery. She read the letter and they embraced. Nothing seemed to matter right then, and they walked home hand in hand, carefree; the burden of responsibility lifted.
Strolling through the park, the sky was filled with wild evening colours. Birds sang, everything seemed peaceful and harmonious for just a moment to Raymond, in a harsh, imperfect world. Opportunities seemed to open up before him, the chance to make a change in his life. He almost felt as if he were walking on those clouds, lifted by a light of reckless optimism. But to Arlene, the sinking sun was already dragging her heart down with it, her affection shying away from the oncoming darkness: the hardship and bitterness she knew that life can always keep in store.
Windows glinted gold and mysterious on the grim towerblocks across the river. LET GLASGOW FLOURISH -said the inscription on the derelict Victorian fountain they walked by: vandalised, headless statues spray-painted with the anger of the unheard. They walked past the monument protected by warlike barbed wire, no water flowing from its crumbling stones.
Further on, Arlene stopped and pointed up at a tree: look, -she said, -those colours are incredible. Raymond marvelled. The tree was split perfectly down the middle: one half pink and red leaves facing into the sun, the other half black and barren branches. It was September, the end of a strange Indian Summer, and autumn catching up fast like an unpaid debt. Arlene ran to pick up some of the fallen leaves from the ground: autumn casualties from the cold north side of the trunk. Raymond watched her stand for minutes just peering into the snaking complex of veins of the golden leaf she held in her hand, trying to read its patterns like a palm perhaps. Raymond gazed in wonder up into the branches, the mute gesturing limbs of that stricken giant.
Arlene was 37, and separated from her husband; with whom her daughter and grand-daughter now lived. Raymond was 11 years younger, an emotional-adolescent dropping through life, falling unhappily in love time after time. To Raymond, Arlene represented experience, stable motherly affection. To Arlene, Raymond offered excitement in some nostalgic way; a reminder of the taste of youth, late recompense for her 15 years wasted in loveless wedlock.
At night they would lie awake and talk, exploring fantasies. He would try to define her beauty: running his face across her skin, searching for the aroma of her body until he could name it; peach, honey, electric tobacco. Once in return, she lay for minutes inhaling through the hairs on his chest until, eyes-closed, she at last announced his scent: CEDAR. Next day they had visited the Botanic Gardens and Arlene laughed while Raymond stood and embraced a huge trunk of CEDRUS LIBANI, his nose pressed deep into the fibrous bark. Through Arlene, Raymond somehow expected to discover his identity, while Arlene looked only for some happiness; to forget herself.
A year before she met Raymond, Arlene had moved out from her husband's flat to be housed by courtesy of the City Council, on the fourteenth floor of one of the many concrete monsters that sail through the grey skies on the hills around Glasgow. The first night there, she had cried like a child, facing a future that seemed as bleak and stark as the unfurnished room around her. Later of course, her daughter began visiting regularly, patching over the fresh wounds, not bringing too much unwelcome news of the estranged husband. Soon Arlene filled her flat with all the domestic ornamental junk that most human beings crave: fluffy sofas, crinkly curtains, picture-clocks, porcelain figurines, the stage-props of the play of life.
Raymond's flat, in contrast, existed at this time in a state as close to penitential as he could keep it: bare white walls and aluminium blinds, grey carpets, no curtains, no ornaments. It was as if he were a monk or a prisoner; as if he were only waiting for real life to begin. With nobody to love, his preference was to listen to music and watch the slow and delicate progress of the sun's rays across the walls, the rigorous geometric shadows thrown by the blinds. He had gone there for solitude, but over many months this prize became a poison: loneliness. He began to notice the advance of many hairline cracks where the tenement walls were gradually subsiding. Later he would try to patch them over, just as Arlene would each morning cosmetically re-plaster her lovely face: concealing the wrinkles, dyeing and tonging her hair, the hour-long ritual before facing the world.
So Arlene walked into the stark simplicity of Raymond's room, the only beautiful thing there, something to be contemplated. Some summer mornings he would wake up and run a single chaste finger over her perfect white skin, wishing he were a sculptor, or an artist with some charcoal and a sheet of cartridge on which to sketch her sleeping. A bath would be running, some sad cascade of notes falling from the radio, yellow light pouring through the blinds. With her eyelids closed she achieved an expression of peace and self-containment; as bewitching to a young man as it was unattainable. Raymond's eyes would move up to rest on her clothes draped over a chair at the window; her Summer Outfit, from the showroom where she worked, a pattern of a thousand tiny white flowers scattered over the deep blue cotton of her dress.
And so Raymond and Arlene assisted each other for a while in some kind of mutual escape, as all lovers do. Some lies in love are beautifully far-fetched, while others are merely difficult to sustain. It wasn't long before Arlene's curiosity began to call Raymond to account for his inconsistency. Why, if he loved her, had she not been invited to meet his parents? What would they believe he could have in common with a shop-assistant, a grandmother? What DID they have in common in fact, except loneliness -which is never enough, never anything in the eyes of those who have forgotten its torments. Arlene began to goad Raymond to argue with her, but found it frustrating, impossible. His feelings for her were not a substantial practical thing to him, open to adaptation or negotiation. Rather, they were some childish dream of paradise, an abstraction. He never questioned her Saturday nights on the town with her friend Lisa, talk of men who chatted them up, suggestions of other liaisons.
They were moving into the phase of arguments. To Arlene, Raymond's redundancy was only the final step in a downward spiral she seemed to sense within him. Self-pitying, self-deceiving; his view of himself as some kind of tragic, fallen hero was unbearable to her. It seemed so vain and middle-class compared to the authentic miseries of her own background. Was he really interested in her? Or was she just some kind of mirror of intimacy? At least the other men in her life had understood her, albeit that they had abused that knowledge. Her father’s drunken sexual proddings before she was old enough to understand, her husband’s power games degenerating by degrees into rage and habitual rape. Always at the end there had been her face pressed in desperation towards some immutable wall, the taste of her own tears and blood. But she had survived, and proven to herself that she was REAL. Perhaps in the end, even pain is more tolerable than the suffocating vacuum of worship.
When her father had finally fallen drunk to the floor on the last night before he left her and her sisters forever; she had kicked and kicked into his stomach as he slept, empowered, almost loving that release, requisitioning his violence as her own. When her husband had shouted Ya Fuckin’ Whoor.., after her as she left him, her cheeks had burned not with shame but with anger among the astonished crowds on Sauchiehall Street. Her victory had been later: to take in her hand at last the key to a home over whose threshold no brute could ever pass again, to meet her daughter there on her own terms, in silence and dignity. All these were real interactions, engagements, although fraught. But Raymond, even in his lovemaking, seemed far away, abstracted and diagrammatic, like a famished stranger stopping over for a day, or a cartographer of the heart eyeing a distant horizon. Perhaps it came down to this distinction: was she a woman to him or Women, a desirable generality, an unknown quantity in an equation he could not resolve?
Such restlessness and calm. They would sleep and wake all night in short intervals between cigarettes and sighs. They lay with their heads together, then woke and mumbled about their dreams, finding that they had inhabited each other's subconscious. Two creatures struggling in distress, limbs shifting and interlocking in changing combinations. Foes and allies, in some obscure conflict with the invisible. Even arguments could become a kind of game for them, after which Raymond wept into her blonde hair with her back turned, drugged on her hairspray and perfume as she began laughing.
Raymond could have read the signs in their dreams; he recorded them scrupulously every morning, pen and paper always at the bedside. His dream of a lunatic escaped from an asylum, clinging to the stone sill outside his flat, trying to get in; then impossible windows appearing in the walls, holding sunlit views of the countryside around his parents' suburban bungalow. Arlene's dream of three faceless men in suits waiting for her in the basement beneath the showroom where she worked. Raymond's dream of he and Arlene lying together on the floor of his parents' bedroom, while Arlene sang in her sleep a high-pitched siren song as a stream of flattened grey old women came pouring out from under the wardrobe like smoke or ghosts. Arlene's dream of her and Raymond wandering together around a supermarket with an empty basket. Of talking to her mother in an old house, while somebody tapped at the window, a stranger waiting outside beyond the drawn curtains.
These were their nightmares, the contents of their cognitive attics, which Raymond recorded without understanding at the time.
After he lost his job, Raymond looked for others. Seven interviews in the first two weeks, something to boast about, then a gradual source of shame as months went by without an offer. Without the torrent of cash, booze and rich food pouring through them, Raymond and Arlene had to live modestly. They talked more, came to see each other as they really were, and ultimately did not care much for what they saw.
The day they split up, Raymond woke up at Arlene's flat to see her standing at the bedroom door, like a hundred times before. Somehow this time she was transfigured, like a ghostly apparition. Sitting up, he noticed how old she suddenly looked. Garish blue eye-shadow slightly overdone; tacky, concealing age, almost coquettish. Her deathly pale skin, her Winter Uniform of black jacket, skirt and stockings on for the showroom. Trim, restrained, nearly funereal.
And then he succumbed to the habit, such a familiar habit by then, as he stirred from under that impossibly huge duvet cover. He moved in response to her words, mechanical, expected words, as he reached for his clothes:-
Raymond, that's time to get up now... I'm leaving in ten minutes... I've made your coffee.
In her living room mirror their figures united briefly, a brittle cameo.
Don't smudge my make-up, she rebuked him, eyes indignant. And that embrace was like a pleasantry dispensed, perfunctory. Raymond's lips moved, miming something utterly banal that he could hardly hear:
-you're a good woman...
But you can't really believe that, can you? -she asked, almost to herself, -what with all that grief I give you half the time?
Her eyes turned to meet the mirror again, checking her hair. And Raymond's eyes followed hers: shoulder behind shoulder, coats on, they seemed suddenly like travellers, but setting out for what? Not through the door and out into this morning, he thought, but through the mirror this time, and there into the future.
The ice of severance was in the air and yet, as Raymond stared from the window onto the frost-tinged streets far below, he felt no bitterness towards her. He felt anaesthetised, detached somehow, scientific.
As they walked down to the bus stop hand in hand; his naked, hers gloved in black, Arlene paused to crush with her heel a single brown leaf sparkling with frost, and pointing down at it, she said:-
Listen... listen to that sound it makes... crunch, crackle, like fire or paper. Quite dead and dried out, crumbling quickly into dust.
That night after work Arlene phoned Raymond, and broke it off. -Surely it's not a surprise to you, is it? -she asked. The conversation was long and painful, filled with empty phrases and unanswerable silences. I hope you won't walk past me in the street if we meet, will you? -She said.
Next day Raymond walked out into a grey, drab world. The Indian Summer was over. The wild blue skies of recent days had subsided. Everything was gaunt and dead. Even autumn's golds and reds were lost. Blackened fingers of trees scraped numbly at the sky.
Walking in the park he passed the tree which Arlene had marvelled at only a month beforehand. He remembered how she had pointed at the perfect split between one half of fiery orange leaves and the other of black branches. Glancing back at the tree, he noticed it had no leaves at all now.
Six months later, he met Arlene in the street. Or rather: eyes watering, throat dry and choked, he attempted to walk past her. You were going to just ignore me there, weren't you? -She exclaimed.
You think so? -he asked, his lips twitching suddenly with an unexpected smile, some surprising happiness or mischief rising inside him. His vision cleared as he met her eyes, his breath came easier. They stood and talked in the early Spring morning, sunlight blinding Raymond's eyes, not particularly enemies, probably allies.
I feel bad about you, she said, nudging him gently.
Don't, he laughed, -don't.
But Arlene was losing her job, she told Raymond. The showroom's latest round of redundancies. What will I do? -she asked, Lisa's alright, she's got Brendan to support her...
Relax, Raymond told her as he had told himself, it's a chance to change your life for the better, just think of all the opportunities.
So they parted amicably, and Raymond walked on in peace, up the long slope of Sauchiehall Street, towards the indifferent office towers of Charing Cross, to just another job, thinking he had not really changed his life much. Perhaps he felt happier now, or more free, at least. A cool wind whispered overhead and the tethered boughs of the precinct trees released a slow rain of blossom on the April air. He was surprised to find so little awkwardness or bitterness inside himself. Summer seemed to beckon at the street’s end and he was reminded for a second of the lightness he had felt as a child at play. A sense of being at one with your body, closer to the earth, breathing with the grace of an animal. Without past or future, foreboding or regret.
Arlene paused to look at his diminishing profile, his solitary figure, strangely self-contained. It shocked her now to think that he was closer in age to her own daughter than to herself. Just as for her daughter, she felt a momentary pang of responsibility; what had she lost or stolen that he was carrying away now? Some relationships can shed light that reaches out beyond the short span of time in which they grow and die. She wondered if their gift to themselves had been this strength to be alone. There are after all, good and bad ways to say goodbye forever to a lover in the street.
She lit a cigarette and smiled to herself, while she waited outside the familiar shopfront now plastered with Closing Down signs. The morning streets were still empty, but her mind was full of crowds and voices like the beating of wings.
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