Humani Nihil

The moral of my story, and/or the method of my writing – it is both – from the start has been, that the 13th-century Mongols were ordinary human beings. People like you and me, in spite of my dedication to writing cultural difference. It’s rude even to say so in blunt terms: of course they were human beings, of course they were people. However, when it comes to the famous massacres, this axiom is not often the way we operate. The massacres, with the off-steppe conquests, I didn’t have to face as a writer until book Three, now underway. They were always ahead of me, and my preparation was to bring these people as close as possible to us (to me the writer and to you, the reader) – with a blind faith in the dictum of Terence:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, and think nothing human alien to me.

I was not going to ‘other’ them before the conquests that we know of. I was going to do the contrary, and test out that Terence adage, in which I have believed devoutly.

That Terence adage is beloved of humanists and those who study the humanities: I see blog posts on it in these difficult times, by the above. I remember the English/History teacher who instilled it in me. Around the same time, Dostoyevsky was teaching me the same precept (Dostoyevsky? I’ll explain with this piece on his ‘radical empathy’, a phrase rather similar: Dostoyevky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck, in the Paris Review). My teenage writing consisted of extravagant statements of this position – I tried to write great criminals from the inside (Dostoyevsky did).

And I end up, ripened as a writer and thirty years away from teenaged, with Genghis Khan. Who, before I researched greatly, was a big bogeyman, wasn’t he? And after research, he still committed those massacres. I have made you like and admire him, if you are with me thus far. We feel close to him. We’re in it together.

Over my life I have established rules for fiction. Or, I had them as teenager and they haven’t changed a jot; I can hope they have matured. Here’s a rule – probably The rule, I don’t have a big collection.

Rule One: Never write down. You can write up (still involve yourself, or risk unrealism). Never write a figure you feel is beneath you. Involve yourself, and if you can’t… your figure on the page isn’t a human being. Don’t decide to exhibit what you dislike in the world, in rationalist fashion, with tweezers and a scalpel. To be fair, in fiction, you have to be your victim; you can vivisect yourself, but nobody else, nobody whom you push to a distance. You can’t be fair that way, you can’t be true, you can’t write human beings.

That is my writing creed: there is no excuse for half-sympathy. If you have a villain, you must be that villain. It’s my (personal: I don’t say every other writer has to apply it) philosophy – no, I’d better stick with ‘creed’. Which is better than ‘rule’ too, since it’s mine and I allow that others think differently.

What if I’m writing about the worst person on the planet?

I don’t know. I’d say you need gigantic skills for that. Because your task remains the same. It sounds traumatic to me, who am not up to this. I have bitten off enough, haven’t I?

I have chosen Temujin, whom I like and admire and who committed massacres.

If you read a few heavyweight dudes on war such as John Keegan (A History of Warfare) and Azar Gat (War in Human Civilization), they are left sprawling about steppe warfare and make cultural explanations from a distance – speculating about why aliens do what they do. I am dissatisfied with these books, where I am not annoyed. Culture is important – too important for non-experts to offer general statements without in-depth cultural exploration. From memory (I need to refresh my memory on Gat) both hang an understanding on what is a popular ‘explanation’: the Mongols massacred the way they butchered animals. Inured to blood because they lived by heavy livestock and the hunt. This line, wherever I read it, assumes that the anthropology is the same as for a butcher in Yorkshire. It isn’t: if you say this, you must study Mongols and animals. Exhibit: Natasha Fijn, Living With Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia [Cambridge UP, 2011]:

‘Mongolian herders have a different perspective and attitude towards their herd animals compared with most views espoused in Western discourse… Mongolian herders’ attitude towards their herd animals is based on an animist perspective of the world, in which other beings are considered as persons… These belief practices are quite different from monotheistic beliefs that are based on the Old Testament.’ [19, 35, 47]

Everything about interaction with animals is unJudeo-Christian, Fijn explains.

Christopher Beckwith in Empires of the Silk Road [Princeton UP, 2009] has done much to un-other the steppe ‘barbarian’ on war. To him, the notion that the steppe way of life fitted them for war is a nonsense (why aren’t travelers’, anthropologists’ steppe populations bellicose, more bloody than the settled?). As a matter of fact I don’t go along with him altogether, but it is still a bravura performance of un-Othering.

One clarification. Genocide, a 20th-century word, has been applied to Mongol massacres, but (I thank God) in error or loose language, for genocide means to try to extinguish an ethnicity, a religious group or a race, and Mongol wars were never about ethnic cleansing. I don’t know how I’d have the heart to write about them if they were, but I have set myself sufficient challenges.

It is perhaps enough that I take Bo’orchu to the massacres in Turkestan.

My Bo’orchu, if you’ve met him, exemplifies the adjective ‘decent’. He has already, in emergency, practised a style of warfare that shocks a reverend old war chief, versed in traditional methods.

Because Tchingis Khan was an innovator in war. He was not a cultural machine who behaved as a steppe nomad is wont to do, when confronted with a city. He thought outside the square, and shocked his own.

My Bo’orchu has already reeled in horror at the sight of the Naiman army, then his enemy, in a corpse-pit on a scale he has never seen. We’ll have to find out how he feels when the corpses are more strange to him, in Turkestan.

I have spent my first two books, quite deliberately, making 13th-century Mongols as familiar as possible, Mongols ‘at home’, without insertion of escape factors for later on in the story (such as, ‘steppe culture was cruel. Life was cheap to them’). These excuses do not reconcile with views of the Mongols at home. And so they are every bit Terence’s homo sum: there is no way for you or I to think of them as Other, not by now. They have ethics, faith, humanity and everything we have. We can’t be let off the hook, I the writer or any readers out there.

I still have no idea how Bo’orchu is going to travel in Turkestan, to be honest in this blog. We’re not there yet. I have drafted in Temujin’s psychology, until the end. It might change. But Bo’orchu I suppose is my every-person, likeable and well-intentioned, not overly religious for his times and no great genius. I love him dearly, and, well, I’ll be there.

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Image: an illustration to Juvaini, who recorded the massacres.

Give an indie a go

I’m not a shameless advertiser, but I am desperate.

Simon J. Cook (independent scholar – on Tolkien among other subjects) has written a short post, Awesome Amgalant, where he calls the start of the book at least ‘up there with Mary Renault, which is to say damn near perfect.’ I hope to God he likes the rest, but then again, after that I scarcely care if he doesn’t.

While you’re there – seriously – play the music vid. It’s Altan Urag, Mongolian folk rock band, and they are beyond fantastic. In fact, visit just for this wild instrumental…

… which I sort of identify with. Maybe I’m doing Mongol folk rock. It’s what I like in Mongolian music: fusions of traditional and contemporary. I’m told it’s how I write my prose. If I can in future create sentence-equivalents to pieces of this track I’ll be, in an artistic sense, happy ever after.

Of course, I look forward to Simon J. Cook’s discussion on what makes the perfect historical novel. As a practitioner, fairly obviously, I’ve become more and more interested in the writing of history, fact and fiction. So much so, I’m going back to uni next year to study it.

Meanwhile here I am, plugging or begging: Be adventurous – try an unknown indie, who’s trying adventurous things herself. If you need a paperback, contact me. I haven’t done huge giveaways, so I’d think of individual asks as a better way to giveaway. We’re still fighting for traction at Amgalant.

Publishing is a dispiriting business for perhaps the majority of writers (trad or indie, dead or alive). I won’t be throwing in the towel, because I have things to say. But of course, one wants those things to be heard. I don’t write ‘for me’, no more than I write for an audience.

I write for Them. I write because no-one has said these things about them. In part I’m stitching together ideas and interpretations from disparate books – that tend to be less mainstream Mongol history, or else that aren’t Mongol history but shed light. In part – as happens when you begin to do this – I have come to conclusions/speculations/inferences unwritten as yet in book. My job isn’t as simple as to turn into a story what the history books have to tell me. Mongol history is ever more contested, including by me. If you’re interested in Mongols, there’s much in my novels I can pretty much guarantee you won’t have met. And that you may think dodgy, but the point is, I try to write an interpretative historical fiction.

It isn’t that I think my Tchingis is the true one. That’s why I spelt him Tchingis, instead of the common transcriptions. But he’s a possible one, I believe, and my mission is to express these possibilities. [1]

With Three – that is, with the Conquests – even more so. I have my material for Three and my main lines. I want to add factors that aren’t usually considered in work on the conquests. They’re not mine: as I say above, stitching together disparate books. Leads to leaps… there’s a thing about novelising history, about the demands of fiction, the cogency and the psychology required, that can result in another, valid way to write history. Or so I fully believe, but I don’t have my thoughts sorted, and that’s why I’m going off to study next year…

Today T. Greer was kind enough to write, when asked for non-fiction recs, ‘For what it is worth, [Bryn Hammond’s] novels on Chinggis’ early life are possibly a better introduction to the period, its characters, and the timeline than anything else in print.’ That’s much appreciated, since T. Greer isn’t a big fiction reader, but has a website, The Scholar’s Stage, on matters strategical, geopolitical, etceterical. If you look under entries tagged ‘Steppe and Sown’, you’ll find Greer’s independent work on steppe subjects (I’m happy to say, my Goodreads shelves were found useful as a kind of annotated bibliography).

  1. One HF I’ve been excited by this year is Shan Sa’s Empress, on China’s woman emperor Wu. It excited me because I felt she was doing a similar ‘possible interpretation’ (out of a hostile historiographical tradition) – that might be seen as whitewash of a shady character, but I think is more than that.

thoughts of Three

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This won’t be my horse for Three, but as you can see I have my eye out already. Here’s a William Blake rendition of ‘Death on a Pale Horse’ — after the Turner of that name we have on the cover of Two. It’s fairly perfect, at least to think about Three with. Is that a History scroll above? Is that, beneath, a black horse and a driving spirit whose name might be he of the Black Tuq… my Jamuqa drives my Temujin in these wars — psychic presence though he is. Imagined? Is Temujin mad these days? In our terms, no doubt, but what about his own? Whatever the case, he leans on Jamuqa for the work he has to do in Three. Like the face in the Blake, he’s committed but freaked out, and you notice the wild spirit’s ahead of him. He feels he has a mission in/from history, yes. History accumulates in Three (a weight on his shoulders, and a struggle for me: how to make that history digestible). There was a quote I liked very early on, from a Joachim Barckhausen, L’Empire jaune de Gengis Khan, Paris 1935:

Genghis Khan was certainly one of those men — perhaps the greatest — who made history. But he could only become it because History created him. He acknowledged this role by trying to understand it and play it, by subordinating himself to it, by serving it...

I’ve always thought there’s something in this, and Ile Ahai has been ruminating on it ever since (he owes at least one speech to Joachim Barckhausen).

This morning I thought I might need a nightmare horse, Fuseli-style, or a war horse done in horror fashion. Or else, the one-horned beast leapt to mind too. The unicorn vision they have in India has become significant in my telling — maybe he’ll belong on the cover, for the Wonder side of my draft, to-be-ditched title, Wonders and Horrors. Can I fuse both?

Meanwhile I like this Blake, to think by. Temujin an old king (hey, he’s only sixty at the end, but let’s exaggerate in picture) and believes he’s on a white horse, doesn’t he? In China white is for a funeral, white is death & ghosts, whereas on the steppe white is blessed and the holy ride white horses. Chinggis has a white tuq for his days of peace, a black tuq when at war. When he gives the reins to Jamuqa (unaged, dead at 39, in scale armour or just scales), lets the black horse loose… Jamuqa being, at this point, a figment of his mind, his attempt to be Jamuqa may end up worse than Jamuqa. “Nobody stopped me,” Jamuqa said once.

The unicorn stops him. We may yet have a unicorn.

Good cop/bad cop: Chinggis/Genghis

On the very split personality of our most famous Mongol. For years past I have believed that there can’t be another historical figure with such opposite images… can there? Since I only know bits & pieces of history I haven’t claimed this to be so, but a few pages by Timothy May on ‘Mongol Image’, in his book The Mongol Conquests in World History, have kicked off this post. May’s pages display plainly his split image.

He divides them on the names: after running through “the most innocuous forms of popular entertainment, from movies to comic books,” to see the sheerly casual use of the Mongols to stand for evils and worst-case events, he concludes, “the G-Word or Genghis Khan appears to be the avatar of this image, while Chinggis Khan is the historical figure.” [102]  Let’s footnote that ‘Genghis’ can be insisted upon by publishers, on the grounds that the general public doesn’t know who Chinggis is (John Man says his did, and John Man’s book falls on the Chinggis side).

It’s not a matter of popular culture versus scholarly history – not in the least. But I’ll linger for a moment on the popular culture. The Mongols, and Genghis in particular, are at saturation-level on the internet, television, in casual talk. Last week on QI the honourable Stephen Fry gave us twaddle about Chinggis – a little barb in my thin skin, as it always is. For a Mongol researcher like me, it’s dangerous to turn on the internet. The amount of off-the-cuff, casual – I’m going to use that word a few times – use & abuse of Mongol history, and Chinggis in particular, has got to be beneath the internet’s usual standards… hasn’t it?

Timothy May, just yesterday, told me that yes, the Mongols (and Chinggis in particular) are a stand-out case. He has told me that the stigma and infamy are, indeed, unexampled. “Certainly the Vandals garnered some recognition,” but they don’t have the Mongols Motorcycle Club, rival to Hells Angels. [103]  As a teacher of world history, he ought to know, and he has told me this much in a scholarly book, and I am going to try to explain the effect on me. However weird this post turns out. You see, historians rarely look at the popular culture – as if there is a partition and they needn’t be concerned – and so, I haven’t seen this situation described in an (ahem) legitimate source. And you know what? I feel legitimated – in the emotions I have had, as a Mongol researcher. I feel like I’ve been a secret alcoholic and now I’m standing up and talking about it, because a person has given me permission. I have been given permission to feel what I felt. Therefore, you’re going to hear about it. I promise not to be too splashy-emotional, and Timothy May is in no way to blame for the content of this post. He only wrote a few pages on ‘Mongol Image’.

As I said above, it isn’t only popular culture. If it were, we’d fix it in no time, for there isn’t a partition, there’s a… zone… and I live in that zone. It isn’t as simple, either, as that old scholarship = negative towards Mongols, new scholarship = more enlightened. Rene Grousset (1939), Michael Prawdin (1935), even Henry Hoyle Howorth (1876–1888), can give you more sympathy towards Chinggis and his Mongols than you might find in a recent biography. In fact without Rene Grousset… this post is a sort of sequel to one on Grousset’s tragic Jenghiz Khan, where I talk about the inception of my novel and complain about scholarly portraits of Chinggis, so I needn’t do that here. Today I just want to describe my experience.

The bad cop Genghis input – not only when I ventured onto the internet, but in the privacy of my library of academic books – barraged me for years. I felt mentally battered and besieged, by my own books. That good cop/bad cop routine is meant to discombobulate you, right? It did me. I’m not natively thick-skinned… I tried to grow elephant hide on the Mongols’ behalf, and not be a wuss or make a fuss. I used to feel sorry for myself, in a quiet, hangdog, hunched-up way, and I had to wonder, do other researchers cop this flak? Flak’s the word for it: random, violent, senseless, everywhere. Misery wants company, and I sniffed about for others with misunderstood pet subjects… there were the Richard III Rehabilitation Society people, perhaps they suffered a bit too? But not like me. This was in the days before Jack Weatherford published. When his Genghis came out, in 2004, I reacted like a starved prisoner dragged suddenly in front of a banquet: you can’t eat it, you can’t digest it, you half-hate the sight of it. I went into a strange mental reel, because I was in an unhealthy state, head huddled in my arms against the blows of my library books. Things have climbed from there, I stride the world with confidence, I don’t cringe at the mention of Genghis…

See, Timothy May told me yesterday that the Mongols — and Chinggis in particular — are an exceptional case, that the casual, saturation-level vilifications go beyond what researchers on other subjects have to face. I had a reason for my self-pity. It feels good, I feel liberated to talk about it.

Dashi_Genghis_Khan_gallery page
Of course, his other image lives in Mongolia, largely. Very largely – have you seen the size of the statues? As May says, as has been said before, at home he’s a King Arthur equivalent, but elsewhere he’s a Hitler. These two collided with the installation of Dashi Namdakov’s sculpture at Marble Arch in London (pictured). You can see this is an inspirational, spiritual image, Genghis as “thinker” as Dashi said to the papers. Quote a councillor: “To erect a statue of Genghis Khan at Marble Arch is a bizarre decision… Who’s next? Stalin? Pol Pot? Saddam Hussein?” Here’s the story in the London Evening Standard. If that comment were unusual… but it isn’t, it’s absolutely standard. Genghis is so often bracketed with Hitler that a phrase has come into use, ‘to the right of Genghis Khan’. I can only explain the etymology of this by assimilation: Genghis & Hitler = killed a lot of people: Hitler & Genghis = extreme right-wing. The senselessness. Timothy May has an online post about that phrase: To the Left of Chinggis Khan. Hey, I used that title… I hadn’t met his when I did. Irritated minds think alike.

I wish May’s discussion of image had covered fiction. He talks film, from John Wayne to Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol. That latter was a healing event for me: Genghis in the cinemas, and the most sympathetic fictional portrait in existence… outside of Mongolia. I have seen three or four Mongolian-made historical films on/with Chinggis, and of course they have far more of King Arthur than of Hitler. Hitler doesn’t enter. It helps to understand – as Timothy May iterates – that Mongolians remember him for his internal activities, not so much his external wars. It’s like the Secret History, where the off-steppe conquests are the least important thing he did. I’d kill (oops) to have Mongolian fiction on Chinggis translated and widely disseminated. Novels are better than movies. I believe it’s fair to say that our novel-reading public expects and wants bad-Genghis, and that’s almost always what they get. Historical fiction is allowed to fictionalise. It isn’t written to salvage his reputation. It does affect the view of him in the streets. Example: in nine out of ten Genghis novels (I have a little collection) he rejects or is estranged from his son Jochi because of Jochi’s bastardy. For the sake of a story, although we have Jochi’s own word for it that Chinggis accepted him as a son. When we rob him of documented good deeds, he hasn’t got a hope. I cheered when Bodrov’s Mongol has him embrace two bastard kids (he adopted several enemy children — they have an excuse to make it two). A Japanese novel, The Blue Wolf, hangs its theme and story on his rejection of the bastard, and has him psychotic at the age of eight. A French Blue Wolf tells the story this way: “But soon, his hunger for power becomes increasingly violent and leads him to experience overwhelming paranoia and a growing mistrust of old friends and allies…” (perilously, I quote the blurb – never believe a blurb, but I have the book for back-up). As I say in my Grousset post, see above, what I admire Temujin for is exactly that this didn’t happen. However, the negative image in fiction is changing too: Chinggis isn’t bad cop in Tom Shanley’s, while Elizabeth Bear has historical fantasy where Mongols are simply human beings.

I’m going to wind up this post, that has been a catharsis for me. Thanks for listening.

Did Jamuqa shoot in the wrong direction?

OttomanHorseArcherMine does, “incorrigibly”. How radical is this in the field of Jamuqa studies? Who else has him so?

A couple of biographies at least contemplate the idea. Michel Hoang is convinced in his Genghis Khan, and if you forgive the archness of his presentation I’ll quote him.

From a section he titles ‘A Strange Friendship’: “Rarely has the chronicler of The Secret History spoken so effusively or at such length about love… Jamuqa was suspected by Temujin’s wife and mother of having ignored ‘proper manners and customs’. Is this to be understood as an allusion to the private habits of Jamuqa…? Did the ‘sworn brotherhood’ conceal some other intimacy? Like the Sinologue Arthur Waley, the Mongolist Paul Pelliot claims not to know the significance of the line, ‘they slept together under the same blanket.’ However, the clause ‘they loved each other’ repeated four times in just a few lines, lends weight to the theory that this was a special kind of friendship taken to its conclusion. One cannot speak with any certainty on this point… however, there is only one inference to be drawn.”

Qorchi’s dream, after Temujin and Jamuqa have quarrelled, “adds to the ambiguity surrounding the anti-hero, Jamuqa.” Hoang relates the dream, in which Jamuqa is symbolised by a cow who knocks her horn off and Temujin by a hornless bull, and asserts that it “does little to dispel the equivocal character of Jamuqa.” [pp.100-1]

I have to quote one other thing from Hoang. In a section titled ‘The Tragedy of Jamuqa’ he puts forth the opinion, “The story of this strange pair and its disturbing denouement might have inspired Shakespeare.” Amen. If only Shakespeare had got his hands on the Secret History of the Mongols. Hoang gets his teeth into it, the Jamuqa and Temujin bits, like an incipient novelist – and he even attributes to Jamuqa “incontrovertibly a greatness of soul”. [pp. 140-1] But this is a tangent, isn’t it, Jamuqa?

Go on, then. Tell them I’m gay.

You just made sense that way, Jamuqa.

I never did.

I do have a note on this, at the end of Tribal Brawls/The Sheep from the Goats. Wherein I don’t offer much grounds but my gut feelings or a novelist’s logic. (… ‘It’s just that he’s fascinated by Temujin his whole life and his life hung together that way, he came across that way to me, and he’s such an outsider, too.’…)  Another novelist, Pamela Sargent in Ruler of the Sky, has him in love with Temujin, although he’s Bad Jamuqa.

A second biography I want to quote has a more sensible tone. Doeke Eisma in Chinggis Qan and the Conquest of Eurasia concludes that Jamuqa was the major emotional involvement of Temujin’s life: “Jamuqa seems to have been the only person for whom Chinggis had strong personal feelings, much more intense than for his wives, or he may have kept them more private, so that they are hardly recorded. He clearly fell in love with Qulan and the only record of an intimate gesture is when he was glad to find Borte again after she was kidnapped by the Merkit. With Jamuqa things were different… There was in Jamuqa a mixture of love, jealousy and hatred… It is not clear to what extent homosexual love was also involved, but their relation certainly was tragic.”  [p.53]

Qulan I’ve named Ulun, Brown Usun’s daughter near the end of Tribal Brawls. Later he takes her with him on the Turkestan campaign, when Borte has to mind the home camp. Then, to be equal, he takes Yisui on his last campaign in Tangut.

On his wives, the above is better than what I’ve seen in several places: that he evinces no particular affection toward any one woman. How the heck would we know, is the first thing to ask. I’d say – against the above – the evidence is there for Borte. However, “with Jamuqa things were different,” in that the Secret History is drenched in emotional description. Most biographers take this with more or less of your cynical salt. But what the Secret History tries to tell you is, whether love or friendship, Jamuqa was the big emotion of his life. I think the cynical lenses lead us astray too often with old cultures, but… that’s getting into deep water. This is a short post.

The second biography quoted was self-published at Lulu and seems to have lost its availability. No ebook. It began as an annotated translation of Rene Grousset’s old Conqueror of the World, until the annotations took over. Rene Grousset certainly gives us a highly charged Temujin and Jamuqa (where both are great-hearted, quite often) – no mention of sexuality, but he too puts Jamuqa at the centre of Temujin’s life, and enters into the spirit of the text. I love his book.

Jamuqa, if I may invite you to comment? The last word is yours.

Can you do a post about my military genius?

Jamuqa’s goat

Jamuqa just wants to pop up today with his goat.
I don’t know what his goat meant to the Scyths (it’s Scythian gold) but it’s spooky, isn’t it? Fit adumbration of his madness.

scythian_gold_plaque_goat

I have no other excuse to post. Have a goat, people. — It’s a great goat, Jamuqa, and any time you want to guest-post… you know, when you feel talkative. He doesn’t talk much, folks, in public, so I’ll give him his goat and see if that’s a first step.

If I were to write over, the one thing I’d do that I didn’t do (I guess I’m lucky to have a single regret — at this stage) is treat Jamuqa’s mental illness with more realism. As it is, it’s story and not science. I’ve only gone a touch mad twice and I’ve never hallucinated goats, and I’ve dabbled in serious material on the subject, over my life. One comment I have: from my researches on shamanism I’ve come to the view that mental problems were more acknowledged as the common things they are, in these societies than in our own. In descriptions of Mongolian and neighbour shamanism I have seen said that shamans work with mental ills even more often than they do with physical. Anthropologist Caroline Humphrey lists the tasks of a Daur Mongol shaman and finishes, “Daur shamans were above all invited to cure mental illness and depression.” [Shamans and Elders, Oxford, 1996]. There are a few areas where I think ‘they did better than us’ and mental illness is among them. Our Jamuqa didn’t let a shaman help him, but even so, he might agree.

While we’re here, why don’t we link to the State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg, its collection of Scythian antiquities. They have the goat.

Solitary writers (are you out there?)

Writers have different habits, different ways to write, and I hope we can politely leave each to our own. It is an exercise in politeness, as I know from myself, because when I hear a friend say, ‘I’m sending out to my beta-readers,’ I want to howl at her, No no no no no. Of course I do no such thing.

Obviously, I don’t use beta-readers. I am the alpha to omega reader of my work, until it’s in a state fit to print. This makes for slow publishing: you need years of perspective on a work, to be an omega reader yourself. So I had my first book in my hands for nine years; I only had beta eyes – or new eyes as I call them – after I’d finished the second and come back. To ask another person for new eyes… no, I cannot contemplate it. They see differently. Only I can see the true road for my book, even if I can’t see yet, even if not for years. Foreign eyes (as I think of them) I fear must hopelessly confuse. Muddy the waters. When I can’t see clearly, the last thing I need is advice in my ears. I have to stare until I see. Or take a hike, come back in a few years’ time with the eyes of a stranger. But my eyes.

One hand writes a novel, that’s my creed. It’s no use to try to shift a belief like that, so I hope we writers can rub along together with our different habits and beliefs.

One hand, one eye to see the right words (did you hear Tolkien creep in? Bugger off, Tolkien. If I’m as crazy as Sauron, let it be so. I can tell you I’ll never change). Where was I? Only the creator’s eye can spot the right word. Other people’s words must be inserts, intrusions, and wrong. Wrong in ways you won’t notice, but you’ve been shifted, if ever so slightly, off your tracks. So if you’ve lost the sense of those tracks, wait. Wait. Wait for years. Others’ input, foreign influence – is your greatest danger.

Now, I can scarcely understate how out of fashion this writing philosophy is. Here I’m in the privacy of my blog; if I essayed to defend this argument in a writers’ public square, I’d be shot down or locked up. But I know I’m not the only one who writes this way – are you out there, solitary writers?

To express my puzzled feelings, crudely, I have a made-up tale of Picasso and the paintbrush. That’s when a bystander looks over his shoulder and says, ‘I don’t think people are going to understand that smudge in the corner. How about you turn that into a cabbage?’ He got a paintbrush through the eye, didn’t he?

It seems to me that written arts are singled out, for the art-by-committee strategy. And I don’t understand why that should be so. Writers have always fought to keep creative control, of course – and lost in general. ‘Go indie’ we urge writers of the past, safely in their graves. Except I’ve met on indie review sites the admittance question, ‘Have you been professionally edited?’ And I can’t tick yes to that box. I can tick, ‘No, piss off. But give me credence. Every word is mine. Every judgement call, my judgement – because no-one else knows what I’m doing with the book, do they? Try it. Call it single malt and have a swig.’

Two months to go

Come January I’m not allowed to read fiction. Two months to wallow.

It isn’t that I’m not allowed, but I’ve had a year off – quite unintentional; publishing proved a fatal interruption/disruption to my hermit-writer’s existence, close-closeted with the book. I haven’t written since January, but I’ve shovelled into the abyss that is my life without the book, a record amount of fiction. Because I can’t read fiction while I write. While I write, the whole goal is never to exit the world of my novel; other fictional worlds are too violent a yank. I didn’t read fiction for years. It’s an unfortunate side-effect and one of the prices you pay, happily. Maybe I won’t go back to that extreme closetedness (now I’m online…) and if I can keep up a feed of fiction, I want to. But I have a fixed date when I have to take up work again, no matter what state my head’s in: no excuses from January 19, a year after I published.

In short, I’ve started to think, two months, what novels can I cram in, which can be left out?

On Change

A hymn to Change, god of novels: and nowhere more so than when you write about the Mongols.

“A big step, in sixty years, from hard times on the Onon Gol to triumphs on the Danube: Liegnitz, Wiener Neustadt might have been the moon to Yesugei’s nokod, the moon Dei Sechen dreamt of.”  – I think I connected steps and the moon in echo of Neil Armstrong. And why not? The Mongols didn’t fly to the moon but they did near enough, in the age. This sentence intrudes when things are at their worst (Yesugei’s dead) – the sudden look ahead, a technique from the Secret History. Here we have Temujin’s family in their lowest circumstances:

Hoelun Ujin, with her native courage,
Tightened down the high hat on her head,
Tied up her skirts in her sash.
Up and down the Onon Gol she ran
Picking sour pear and cedar cones,
Day and night scoured for nourishment for her sons.

Mother Hoelun, with her innate gall,
Took up sharpened sticks of juniper,
Dug the ground for roots and tubers,
Nourished her sons on mountain leek and onion,
On lily bulbs, white rush bottoms, silverweed.
She fed the clutch of upturned gullets in her nest,
Her hungry young, who grew to be kings and legislators.

That’s a sudden zoom – that gives you vertigo. Now, I believe in the artistry of the Secret History. It’s art, right? I don’t think it does this to claim the inevitability of Temujin’s rise to world fame. No, crap. It does this with the opposite intention: so you scratch your head and go, ‘Eh? From here to there? Crazy.’

Because it is crazy. Let’s get that straight: history is crazy, none more than Mongol history. There’s no inevitability about it. Juvaini, 13th-century Persian historian, muses on these questions:

“How contingent are human affairs, often how inexplicable. In the face of fate and fortune our exertions go for nought. Powers overthrown in their strength, their affluence, their high civilization, while we search for the logic in vain. Such an instance (was there ever such an instance?) are the Mongol people, when one casts an eye to their circumstances before they began to beat the drum of Tchingis Khan, when one sees with what extravagance fortune has sped them: on the head of the slave a crown to his glory, on the foot of the prince a fetter to his shame. And that was easy unto God.”

Easy unto God, but baffles the historian. As he says, the Mongols’ climb is unexampled. The only analogue I have found is the Arab conquests. Nobody expected, conceived of, imagined what happened in Mongol history. It was unimaginable. So, firstly, the novelist (historians too) must keep in mind that her people can have no conception of what’s ahead.

Obvious, but tricky to do – to honestly forget your hindsight on their behalf. And there are traps in the next one: she mustn’t attribute to them things out of the future. This is often transgressed – by historians, yes. Most of our data is from the Empire Period. For lack of material, historians have been known to assume the data goes for Mongols before they left the steppe. This underestimates the change factor. And the change factor – my creed is – cannot possibly be overestimated. What people’s circumstances changed so much in sixty years? And the changes to them? In thought, practices, behaviour? Nothing can be transported straight from later times to earlier. No assumptions, except for the assumption that changes were massive, or that for anything to be unchanged is near-impossible.

Of course Chinggis didn’t set out to conquer the world – unless you believe the heavens told him what’s ahead. The first intimations that success led the Mongols on to think in terms of world-conquest, date from late in his career or after his death. And no wonder, with success like that. The bizarreness of history has to be kept, conserved, by novelist or historian. Mongol history was never inevitable. It’s bizarre.

Would the Empire Period Mongols have recognised themselves from the obscure days on the steppe? Maybe, but not the other way around. Not the other way around.

“Eljigidei who forty years on, in the strange new world Tchingis left them, was agent for negotiations with Saint Louis of France and the Pope towards a scheme for Mongols and Crusaders to concert and win the Kingdom of Jerusalem.”

I pop this in, when Tchingis is in his lowest circumstances – for the bizarreness, as I believe the Secret History teaches me: startle them with a glance ahead. I don’t argue with my original’s artistic effects, I shut up and copy. But Eljigidei, down-and-out with Tchingis at Baljuna Lake, would only reel to see his future self. Recognise him? No way. No more than the Pope.

It might have happened differently. Change goes along with uncertainty: there’s the change principle, there’s the uncertainty principle: two yak’s tails to hang on your standard, whether you want to write fiction or fact. Put in the accidental. Put in the trivia that swung history, the unfair illogical stupid little thing that swung a battle. The accident factor, there’s a third yak tail, to end on a holy number: I’ll have to think up nine, for my writer’s tuq.

oh yeah


about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

If I go quiet…

512px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_Death_on_a_pale_horse_-_Google_Art_ProjectI can feel Three upon me. For a few months I’ve lived a life such as I dreamt of ‘when the book is finished’ – in once upon a future, if I live to see the day. And it’s been great. I’ve kicked up my heels, been ushuttable-up on Goodreads, I’ve read fiction – which I cannot do while writing (years and years wiped out for fiction, an unfortunate side-effect). I’ve dwelt on old loves, I’ve pulled my past together: into a focus. Maybe I can’t go back to the hermit life, now I’m online. I wasn’t online while writing One and Two. Can you do both? We’ll see. The most fun I’ve had is group reads in Shakespeare Fans and I can’t stop that. But here’s Jamuqa, dead on his white horse and calling to me. And life starts to feel purposeless without him, who has been my purpose for nine years now. Back to the slave pits. Not this week, but next, I almost dare to say.