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WE ARE HERE... is nearly here.

My new book is being published in the UK next week (the US edition is coming in the Fall), so I thought I’d give it a few words of introduction, before it pokes its nose cautiously out into the world... Though actually, We Are Here has never been a diffident book. I wrote it because I had no choice. It made me do it.

Authors are often asked where they get their ideas – and I’ve got no good answer to the question, though I do have several facetious ones – but the truth is that ideas are cheap: it’s getting them written down that’s the challenge. For a long time I’ve used memorability as a test. When I get an idea for a novel (as opposed to an observation or random thought) I don’t write it down. If it’s going to be enough to hold my love and attention for the year it takes to steer a book to completion, then it needs to be strong enough to stick in my head until ‘m ready to start. The idea for We Are Here more than met this test. It just wouldn’t go away. I actually wrote two other novels in the meantime, but this idea just kept coming back to knock on the door and say: “Is it my turn yet? I’m not leaving, you know. Sooner or later, you and me... we’re going for it.”

And finally, I did. The book starts with David, a small town writer whose fortunes look set to take a sudden upswing, but are compromised by a strange encounter in a train station. It also involves John and Kristina, a couple recently moved to New York, and who become embroiled in trying to work out the identity of someone who may – or may not – be stalking a friend of theirs. In between these protagonists are many other characters (this is the biggest book I’ve done), members of the mass of humanity that form the backdrop of all our lives, and whose existence we ignore most of the time but who are out there living lives of their own – and in this case lives that are far stranger than you might imagine.

By the time John, Kristina and David’s lives have begun to intertwine, the truth is not far behind. I can’t talk too much about what happens next without compromising the novel – in novels of suspense, the characters’ journey from ignorance to bewildered knowledge is an important element of the story, and I want the reader to come along on that ride. But I can say that We Are Here is my most concerted  attempt yet to deal with the creativity and life force inherent in all of us, and what happens when it’s frustrated or curdled; with the complexities of friendship and love; with the schism between childhood and the adult world and what may be carried through from one to the other — and what may also fall by the wayside, and at what cost.

Most of all it's an attempt to blend the power and drive of a thriller with a story that squares up to the eerie strangenesses of our world, the things we try to discount and push aside because they make no sense – when in fact they’re all too explicable, once you’ve realized what’s going on: realized, or remembered... or been forced to recall.

We all forget things, and forget people, and forget our dreams. That doesn’t mean they forget us. They may be prepared to do anything to make us remember, too, to make their presence felt.

Anything at all.

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WAH! First giveaway winner... and second giveaway rules...

Okay. I forgot that my son would be at school at the time I needed to select a winner, so I drafted in my wife instead. She’s pretty random. The winner has now been selected, and an email sent. If you don't receive that email, I'm afraid it's not you. But now... the second giveaway commences.

For the pure hell of it, I’ve decided to augment the system for this one. In addition to people who subscribe to this blog, I’m going to punt out a “Chance to win” tweet about the giveaway tomorrow morning (Pacific time), and will open the draw to anyone who retweets that tweet.

People who’ve already subscribed to the blog will be included in this next draw and thus get a second go... in recognition of you all being so jolly quick off the mark. The draw from all blog subscribers and everyone who retweets will happen next Monday, the 11th. [UPDATE: just realised I'm going to be away that day, so actually it'll be Tuesday 12th.]

To raise the excitement to potentially dangerous levels, I’m going to include a paperback of KILLER MOVE with this one, to be signed to the same person, a different one, or... whoever you wish, within the bounds of legality and sanity.

I’m not even sure that I understand this whole thing any more, but I think it boils down to:

1. If you’ve already subscribed to this blog, no action is necessary. You’ll be in the next draw too. 2. If not, you can either subscribe to this blog, or retweet the tweet. Or both.

I hope that’s clear. Now I have to stop typing the words ‘tweet’, ‘subscribe’ and ‘draw’, because they’ve stopped having any meaning to me.

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New Aunts

A bonus to living in a country where they (allegedly) speak the same tongue, is being continually reminded how much nuance exists in the language. I’m not talking about words that are simply different, like lift/elevator or pavement/sidewalk. Neither do I mean variations in idiom, though those are plentiful. You don’t ‘pop to the shops’, but ‘run to the store real quick’; and you’re not ‘cross’, either — a term which causes confusion and/or hilarity — but ‘mad’. I mean instead the ways in which choices of words or terms can be used to signal your level of cultural integration. I remember a friend better-versed in French than I once advising that a snappy way of dealing with someone giving you grief in Paris would be to pop right back with ‘Q’est-ce-que tu veut que je fasse?’. While on the surface this merely means ‘What do you want me to do about it?’, you’re also tutoying your interlocutor (presumptively deploying the informal pronoun ‘tu’, rather than ‘vous’, a subtle way of being dismissive) and furthermore throwing the subjunctive at them (by using ‘fesse’ rather than ‘fait’, thereby indicating you’re not just some dickhead foreigner, but know how to talk proper). I may have got the French slightly wrong, but my point still holds.

There’s plenty of that to be had here, too, though I generally try to avoid snarling at people. There’s the way you respond to someone saying ‘Thank you’, for example. The obvious — and in most circumstances the best — is the traditional standby of ‘You’re welcome’. We still don’t really use that in the UK (despite what we try to teach our children), instead greeting any thanks with suspicion, as though they might be a covert additional request, or an invitation to have a fight. Here it is always sincere. You’ll hear richer versions sometimes, such as ‘Oh, you’re welcome’ or even ‘You’re so welcome’, though you have to be female or really quite camp to get away with the latter.

For the more adventurous, you can come back with a curt-seeming ‘Sure’, which is apparently not only perfectly acceptable and polite but quite manly; and recently I heard for the first time in ages someone responding with the old school ‘You bet!’, which I love, but isn’t something I’m going to be able to get away with in an English accent.

The accent is a problem. People here will greet friends (and strangers) with a ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’, both of which I flatter myself I can carry off. When it comes to ‘Hey - what’s happening?’, or especially ‘Hey - what’s going on?’, however, I know my limits. Californians over quite a broad age range can make the latter sound relaxed and friendly and cool. I sound either like I’m making a genuine and rather querulous inquiry, or as if I’m on drugs and in danger of passing out.

Pronunciation effects individual words too, as with the ubiquitous ‘awesome’, used here to mean everything from a superlative to ‘thanks’ or even almost an equivalent to some uses of the British ‘cheers’. English people pronounce the first syllable ‘awe’ near the front of their mouth, with a pushing-out lip movement: Californians set it further back toward the throat and keep their lips out of it, producing more of an ‘ah-some’ or even ‘ossum’, exactly like ‘possum’ without the ‘p’. Even a word as short as ‘dude’ is hard to nail. ‘Dood’ comes close, but the vowel sound is again pulled further back in the mouth than feels entirely natural. I do my best with both words, naturally, but probably wind up coming across like someone’s dad trying to sound cool, which of course is what I am.

Harder still is the process of learning that you can say some things here with sincerity which in England would only ever be uttered with weapons-grade irony: ‘thank you for sharing with us’, for example. Conversely, the mix of vicious ribbing and self-deprecatory humor that forms the backbone of English banter is likely only to provoke bafflement, alarm, or the offer of an introduction to a therapist specializing in self-esteem issues.

There’s a general openness in American discourse that can make an English person feel unnerved and on the back foot, with inevitable consequences. The family was sitting at the counter having a sandwich in a nice little café up in the mountains the other Sunday (Coffee 9 in Ben Lomond, which I can highly recommend), and chatting amongst ourselves, when a teenage girl nearby asked me if I was speaking in a ‘British’ accent (there are no English people here, we’re all ‘British’). I allowed that I was, at which point she asked, with dawning wonder, if she had a accent. I said um, yes, an American one. This appeared to blow her mind. (The odd thing is that after a year and a half of living here, I’ve more-or-less stopped hearing the American accent as an accent, and instead accept that it’s me who talks funny).

The conversation went a little pear-shaped after that, sadly, as the girl continued to express her awe at the idea of her having an accent, to increasingly furrowed brows on our part, and then ultimately departed, doubtless feeling that the three weird British people had been starting to stare at her in an unfriendly way.

When it comes to conveying reserve bordering on hostility, we Brits don’t need recourse to words. But what do you want us to do about it, huh?

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Stupendous WE ARE HERE giveaway

Alright, maybe 'stupendous' is over-selling it a little, but it’s only a few weeks now until the UK publication of my new book, WE ARE HERE. Orion gave away a couple of proof copies of the novel a few weeks ago, but I gather this somehow ended up being restricted to certain territories, and so I’ve scored a couple more and would like to make them available to the world and possibly the universe at large, (although winners from other solar systems should know that they will be expected to handle their own shipping costs). The best way I can think of doing this is requesting that anyone interested subscribe to this blog. Don’t worry, I’m not doing this as a sneaky way of getting more people to read my meandering rants – you can unsubscribe again immediately afterwards if you choose (though somewhere, a baby angel will shed a tear, and when that tear falls on the ground it will shatter with a sound that will never be heard until it's too late for all mankind).

It’s just that last time I ran something like this I did it by randomly choosing Twitter followers and wound up in the rather ignominious position of trying to foist books upon people who’d obviously either followed me on a passing whim or while very drunk, and who were frank in their bafflement at having someone hassling them about a free book. Plus there was a nice young lady called HotSuzie7 who graciously accepted the novel but then tried to involve me in activities that would have been inimical to the continued peaceful progress of my marriage.

So — if you’re interested in winning a proof copy of We Are Here, please subscribe using the button over there on the right, where it says 'Subscribe' in turquoise letters. You then need to click a confirm button in a message you'll be sent. I’ll get my son to randomly select an email from the list next Monday, and then again the following Monday... I will of course be delighted to inscribe either copy to you, a significant other or indeed your cat.

In the immortal words of Hank Kingsley (I’m happily working through the LARRY SANDERS SHOW from the very beginning at the moment)...

... This is exciting, isn’t it?

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Child Proof

One of the peculiar things about being a parent is watching your carefully-nurtured sense of self shouldered aside, as your world is increasingly structured by your child/ren, and your role in life becomes not ‘novelist’ or ‘really rather decent chap’, but ‘Nate’s Dad’. I’d started to become accustomed to this in England, but it really jumped to the fore when we moved to California. My day-to-day life didn’t actually change much. Yes, there was a beach and sunshine and excellent salad dressings, but I still spent most of my time alone in a room, staring balefully at a computer. My son was out at the sharp end of change, every day, starting a new school and meeting new people and dealing with the myriad cultural differences that aren’t obvious until you start trying to actually live in a foreign country. Gradually these have come to affect our lives, too, including the role of being a parent – especially as we’re still new here and I really am now just ‘That vague English dude, you know – Nate’s father.’

Parenting is different here. In London, for example, parents are pretty comfortable with admitting their child is being an arse. They may be the first to posit the idea, in fact. If two children get into a scrap in a middle-class park, then the on-duty parent of both sides usually defaults to bollocking their own kid first (to the utter confusion of the children involved).

In California parents do not describe their child as an arse, at least not in public (they may throw them in a dungeon when no-one's looking, for all I know). The parents here seem better at being on their children’s side — even if this sometimes involves infantilising them, just a tad. They have carefully constructed and adhered-to systems of privileges, and I can understand why: as a child gets older you may find yourself inventing rewards simply so they can be withheld. It’s a depressing tactic, but sometimes the only language they seem to understand. I remember once hearing a hostage negotiator on BBC Radio 4 wearily noting a similarity in the difficulties of dealing with young children and terrorists, in that neither group understands or fears the sanctions of authority.

Here the kids do seem to understand, and that might be because their parents are more consistent. I'm probably just revealing my own inadequacies in the field, but it seems to me that parenting in England is conducted on a pretty ad hoc basis, something to be bumbled through with as much good grace as possible, like a game of football or the Second World War. Parents in California seem far more ready to believe they can make a difference through continual action and affirmation and old-fashioned respect, which may be an adjunct to the dated but still popular notion that anyone may, through hard work and a good heart, become President. Actually, I think both approaches have their merits. It may do a child good to inform him or her that unless they stop being so smug, egocentric and generally tiresome they won't get to be Prime Minister. Though evidently that didn't work for Mr and Mrs Cameron.

It’s more subtle than this, of course, and I haven’t been here anywhere near long enough to get to the bottom of the differences, or even to be able to articulate them. After we came here my son rapidly developed something akin to an America accent, by necessity. During his first weeks it became clear the other kids simply couldn’t understand what the hell he was saying. People in England — including children — are used to American accents from film and television. Here the only English voices you hear are those of baddies on film, or effete ineffectuals like me. Without setting his utterances to a style of music the other kids could recognize — and also altering his word choice — he couldn’t be understood.

Usages differ in unexpected ways. In days of yore — by which I mean the 1970s and 80s — the word ‘bummer’ had only one connotation in England (at least in my juvenile circle), and it didn’t relate to a circumstance that might ‘bum you out’. It was a pejorative term meaning ‘male homosexual’. The more American meaning of the word is now well understood, but it’s still a term that rings oddly in the UK because of its echoes with ‘bum’ (which is not used In American in the sense of ‘bottom/behind/posterior’).

In our first month here my son started using ‘bummer’ at home, a lot, and I gave him concerted grief about this until I happened to be at his school one afternoon, and heard his charming but firm and proper first grade teacher using the term openly in front of children in the playground.

Nate witnessed this too, and turned to me. ‘See?’ he crowed. ‘I was right, and you were wrong.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘But you’re still an arse.’

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