[GUEST POST] David Gullen on Holiday Reading and Writing

David Gullen self-assembled from a template provided by his parents while in South Africa. Three years later he was baptised by King Neptune as he sailed across the equator. Since then he has studied biology, worked as a van driver, washer-up, armourer, leatherworker, and IT geek; and become the father of three children. David’s novel, Shopocalypse, a near-future story of fast cars, consumerism and nuclear war, is available from Clarion Publishing. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including ARC and Albedo One, and also forthcoming in G.U.D. His first collection, Open Waters, has just been published by the EXAGGERATEDpress. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold, and too many tree ferns. You can read his flash fiction every week on his website.

Holiday Reading – and Writing

by David Gullen

All books are portals. Fact or fiction, they take you to places you know little or nothing about. When I was young I read adventures set in places far-away in time and geography – The Coral Island, Two Years Before the Mast, Dr. Dolittle. Each book was like a holiday, the same sort I had as a child, when I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to find. Some books were so good I went back again and again.

As I grew older I read SF and Fantasy and little else. Looking back I can see that was narrow-minded, but I got over it. It was a phase where I thought the world was terribly mundane, that I knew it all and it was all quite dull. What did adults know? My push-bike could take me to the woods and no further, the bottom of the garden wasn’t far enough away from the house. I wanted to escape, to grow up, to be master of my own destiny, even better – captain of my own ship! I escaped from what I though was the dull adult world into books. It never occurred to me that one thing some adults knew was how to write good books.

Most books have internal portals too. In genre they can be overt – wardrobes, time-machines, dream-magic, platform 9 ¾. Others are journeys, a train, an artefact, some kind of initiator. In a way they are less important than simply opening the cover and starting to read. Most holidays and book all start in the same place – your home. The book is a portal, and so is the front door. Reading SF and fantasy I discovered travel to these imaginary worlds and people could teach you about real life and yourself. About what is outside the front door.

You go on holiday and you come back. When you finish a book you come back too (where you’ve actually been is a whole separate conversation). And just like there’s no one perfect holiday for everybody. It is the same with books. We go where we want, we go where fancy takes us, we learn to trust certain guides and sometimes they give us a map. We take the recommendations of fellow travellers, people who have been there before us.

There’s another thing holidays do, whether they are beach days, adventure trips or travelling – they take you outside of yourself and your life. This is exactly what good fantasy and SF do, they refresh the soul and amaze the mind. Sometimes they even let you look back at yourself with the same distance you get sitting on a beach.

It occurred to me as I was working on Shopocalypse that writing a book is like going on a holiday too. This time it’s one you’ve planned yourself. You decide where you are going , you read up about the place, you make some plans and pick some things to do when you get there, who you want to meet. Like real holidays, when you arrive and start exploring you discover a whole load of far more interesting things waiting there for you. You want to do it all but it just won’t fit in. You meet some unexpected people – that guy smoking his pipe in the corner, that girl with the flying cap. You have to make some decisions, cut the so-so stuff and stick with the best. You have your holiday, it’s not the one you thought you were going to have – it’s even better.

Live role-play taught me some useful life skills about self-confidence, as a writer it taught me what it’s like to fight a skeleton warrior or stand in a shield wall. In a similar way the sand box of fiction can hold up a mirror to the world and sometimes this can bring a strange clarity. It also lets you write about forbidden things, as Russian SF writers discovered during the years of Stalin and the cold war. What are we forbidden to write? What mirrors can we hold up? Or shall we just go on holiday to unwind and have some fun?

Shopocalypse had simple origins, a complex development – I thought it would be fun, then I realised what I’d bitten off, that under the gags and adventure was a dark mirror. It’s near-future SF, a road trip, the kind that starts when you sling your bag in the back seat and just drive.

If life itself is a holiday , a big one we are all on together, then Shopocalypse is part way through the second week. It’s been pretty good so far but you’re starting to have some doubts about the next few days. You are worried that it’s going to end.

Let me introduce you to your Tour Guides, Novik and Josie. Novik’s a little rough round the edges but Josie knows his heart is in the right place. They have this amazing car and they’re trying to save the world.

That’s another thing – it’s very important when you go on holiday that you go with the right people. People you want to stand beside, to go where they go and share their adventures.

So these are my holidays. I love going to the places other people have discovered and I enjoy planning my own. They’re going to be fun. They’ll have magic and science, they’ll have waterslides and laser beams, talking cars and deep dark forests. When it’s all over I’ll come back home and start planning the next one.

Want to come?

Some Holiday Reading:

  • Dark Eden, Chris Beckett
  • The Steel Seraglio, Mike, Linda and Louise Carey (Published in the UK as The City of Silk & Steel)
  • Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock
  • West With The Night, Beryl Markham
  • Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett
  • The King’s Last Song, Geoff Ryman
  • Babylon Steel, Gaie Sebold
  • Night Lamp, Jack Vance
  • Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny