Tag Archives: books

Why aren’t novels illustrated?

illustration collage

This may seem like a ridiculous question. But calm down everyone… clearly, the words in a novel should paint a far more vivid picture than any illustration ever could. That’s exactly the point-of-view that I’d normally argue: it’s sacrilege to even consider putting pictures in novels! Novels harness the power of words, they’re not picture books… yadda yadda…

But… would the right sort of illustration enhance some novels?

Of course, illustrators can be great artists – we can all recognise that. But we’re only allowed to appreciate illustrations if they’re in childrens’ books or in comics.

The closest we tend to come to an illustrated novel nowadays is in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which illustration is used intelligently to help us gain insight in to the mind of the protagonist/narrator: a map of a street, a hypnotic pattern from some fabric, a scrawled doodle. Maybe this is the furthest that an author can push illustration without the risk of producing something that’s seen as more of a novelty than a serious novel.

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Both of those books were critically acclaimed and hugely popular – I love them – it can work when done well. And they aren’t alone: The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith was called “A British beat classic for the 21st century” by Esquire, and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall created images out of the words themselves. What I’m interested in is whether a more ‘straight’ form of illustration can still be effective – or is it just completely unnecessary in a novel?

Is there a middle ground for the right book? Perhaps a hybrid of a traditional novel and a graphic novel? Whaddya think?

Any suggestions of books that have actually done this successfully?

The brilliant illustrations at the head of this post are from:
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Takes From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

The merest hint of snow (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

Overnight,
The temperature dropped,
Wafting the merest hint of snow,
Through the air,
Like dandelion seeds,
Gently blown,
Then blown away,
To make you wonder if they were ever there.

Authors who look like their writing: #3 Zadie Smith

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‘She is faithful to her roots without being bound by them.’

– Adam Mars-Jones

Zadie Smith is the embodiment of a very modern writer. When I think about her writing, I think about a multi-ethnic, western world, where races are both very separate and completely intertwined at the same time.  I think of vibrance and energy and intelligence and insightfulness. And very helpfully for this post, she exudes all of these in the way she looks.

As an aside, I also love her for being a staunch defender of Britain’s libraries, as the government persists in closing huge numbers. Go Zadie!

The great photo is by Nikolai Failla

The loneliness of being a writer

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“What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with problems in solitude.”

– Henry Miller

A writer’s world can be a strange one: we desperately try to find moments of solitude but then, when we get it, often struggle to adapt to the loneliness.

The truth is that writing can be a lonely old business. It usually needs to be. And different people cope with that in different ways. What’s important is that we choose and embrace this solitude rather than feeling powerlessly cut adrift. I guess that’s the difference between solitude and loneliness.

I actually like the solitary nature of writing – but I’ve found that I’ve been at my most productive on writing retreats, where I’m surrounded by other writers. In it’s own way, this is still isolation: in a house in the middle of nowhere, with no distractions and nothing to do except write from morning till night. It’s inspiring to feel the energy coming from the other writers in the group – that was the additional motivation I needed – but I still had to find my own bubble to write in.

There’s also the ‘no-one else understands’ loneliness. Oh yeah. If you stick your head out the window right now you’ll be able to hear that wail from a thousand heads looking up from a thousand keyboards.

And it is true. It’s highly unlikely that anyone else (except other writers) will understand exactly what it is you go through every time you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, knowing that you’re embarking on a process that will take months, if not years, to complete. Not only won’t anyone understand why you do what you do – but they may not understand what you end up writing either!


It’s not so easy to fit all this in to our day-to-day lives. We crave the moments we manage to find for ourselves: after work, before work, at weekends, when the kids are out, on that weekend away, on the train. And it’s never enough. But then we make the time and guess what?

1. We procrastinate

There’s always that friend you meant to email, the youtube clip you meant to watch, the washing-up left in the kitchen sink, that thing you had to do that you’ve been meaning to do and you should probably at least look in to how you go about starting to do it.

If only someone would ring on the doorbell, you’d invite them in for tea and cake.

And sure, you want to build up a social media profile, to update your blog regularly, to make contacts… but if you haven’t made peace with the solitude and put the time in to your writing then the other stuff is all for diddly squat (is that even a phrase or did I just make it up?).

Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

I guess this is now a tough love post!

2. The pressure, the pressure!

We’ve found the time and the space to sit with our pen and paper or at our keyboard… but what if the words won’t come? What if everything I write is shit? It’s making me crazy!

You know what? Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

Ok, I know I’m being harsh. There are plenty of techniques and exercises to help get the words flowing – I’ve suggested and discussed a lot of them since I’ve started blogging. But being a writer is tough, no matter how much we love doing it or how much we feel that we have a story that needs telling. We need to learn to make friends with solitude and be hard on ourselves. Think of it as a privilege to do what you’re doing, not a chore, no matter whether your friends or family understand. For me, it’s all about being continually surprised and excited by what I’m writing… and if I can stay in that place then I’m a happy man.

(Photo by me)

(One day I’ll learn how to write a structured article)

Dancing on sand / Living for the now (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

The coach headlights are thrown on full beam,
Illuminating a sandy stage,
As the dancing pairs,
Defy their age.

And though the evening is warm enough,
That coats aren’t required,
You still couldn’t have guessed at the inspired,
Choice of attire on display.
Sequins, sequins everywhere,
Heavy make-up,
Cumulus hair,
No colour to garish,
No trouser too tight,
An army against blandness,
Dressed for the fight.

Here, there’s no disgrace,
In a belly that struggles to remain penned,
By the buttons on a shirt,
Or a jowl that wobbles more,
Than a few years before.
It’s not about being airbrushed and pert,
Because the reality,
Is that this happiness comes more,
From enjoying the commonalities,
We find with other people;
More from appreciating what you’ve got,
Than what you had;
Not from being grateful,
Just from being glad.

Authors who look like their writing: #2 Kurt Vonnegut

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Look at him, with his dishevelled, curly hair and tidy moustache, with his rumpled face and wry smile. He could be a mad scientist or a kindly history professor… maybe a bit of a wise guy. Or a genius novelist who was in turns prophetic and vulgar, a poet and a cartoonist, a non-conformist and an acrid wit. He’s so loved that I feel hesitant to give him any of these labels. To me, he seemed eternally disappointed in humanity yet filled with an absolute optimism in the possibility for human kindness.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
perhaps
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.

– ‘Requiem’, Kurt Vonnegut

(Photo: Random House/Reuters)

I’ve been asked a few times if I’m taking suggestions for other authors to include in this series.
Of course, bring it on.

Authors who look like their writing: #1 Richard Ford

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Bear with me on this one. I’m currently halfway though reading the (already) brilliant Canada by Richard Ford and I was thinking how, at it’s best, Ford’s writing is a sublime combination of elegant, languid and wise. Then I flicked to the inside back cover and saw his photo – and the first thing I noticed was that he looks just like his writing. And that made me happy.

And now, excuse me, but I have to go and crack open a couple of beers with him on the front porch at the end of a long, hard day on the ranch*…

Photo © Laura Wilson
*N.B. I do not actually own or work on a ranch. To my knowledge, neither does Richard Ford. I also enjoy drinks other than beer although I have no idea about Richard’s taste in alcoholic beverage or if he drinks at all. Although I bet he does.

We each erect our own barriers (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

In the back of the car,
Victor runs his hands over the soft, cracked seats,
That always seem to smell like new.
His view out the window is incomplete,
Through the hazy tint,
As if he wants a hint,
Of what’s going on in the world,
But has no desire to be hurled,
In to the grime and banality,
Of what he perceives as reality.

The car leaves the steel and the concrete,
The chaos and the bustle,
Of the city behind,
And enters a suburb defined,
By it’s residents’ desire,
To separate themselves from each other.
Infinite lawns,
And hedges like fences,
Ensure that their lives are isolated,
By their own defences.

They pull up to a security gate,
And are granted entry,
By an anonymous sentry…

My 34 favourite books (probably)

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I admit it: this is a completely self-indulgent post. Forgive me. I shall beat myself with copies of War and Peace, in penance.

One of the guys on my writing retreat asked the rest of us to choose our three favourite books for him to add to his reading list. Really? How am I supposed to pick only three? I thought I’d give it a go by writing down all of my favourite books with the aim of choosing three from there – and this is what I came up with.

I haven’t given any rationale or explanation for any of the choices here (but I’m more than happy to chat away for hours about any of them) and sure, I’ve probably accidentally missed some books off the list (but this ‘assembled-in-an-hour’ compilation is what I’m sticking with for now).

This is them in alphabetical order. Remember: ‘my favourite’ not ‘The Greatest™’. Be enraged, be dumbfounded, be supportive…

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (1983)

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich (1935)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)

Brilliant Orange by David Winner (2000)

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer (1991)

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (2001)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

D-Day by Anthony Beevor (2009)

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)

I Am Legend by Richard Mattheson (1954)

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2003)

Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now by Eleanor Coppola (1995)

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)

The Book of Dave by Will Self (2006)

The Crow Road by Ian Banks (1992)

The Dark Knight Returns by Mark Miller (1986)

The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest May, Philip Zelikow (1997)

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)

The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)

The Stand by Stephen King (1978)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010)

The Wrench by Primo Levi (1978)

World’s End by T. C. Boyle (1987)