There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.
Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.
It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.
But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.
I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.
Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.
So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.
And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.
The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.
Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.
A slightly misleading clickbait title there, because we can all screw up without assistance. We screw up by commission and omission. We forget, or erase; we don’t care, or do harm. We fail to listen, we fail to act. We say stupid things. Stupider than that. You know that thing you said twenty years ago that still comes into your mind at 3am and makes you sink your teeth into the pillow? Those. We write books or blog posts or emails or tweets that, in retrospect, make us wonder if we were high, or maybe possessed by whatever demon is wearing Donald Trump’s skin, or at least if we could use that as an excuse. We hurt people. We hurt ourselves. We say and do and write things that were meant to be funny or positive and turn out to be hurtful and stupid, stupid, why did I ever think that was a good idea? We fail.
The question is not whether we will screw up, but what we do about it.
The first step is usually to face the fact of screw-uppage, which is harder than it sounds. Denial is so much easier. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. You definitely said Thursday. I’m sure I didn’t get that email.
I like to see myself as a nice person. (Stop laughing at the back, I need my delusions.) To pluck an example out of a current situation in my genre: I believe in diversity and representation. I am working hard to turn my fictional landscape into one that’s home to a wide variety of people. But I have got that wrong before, in a number of ways, and I will doubtless get it wrong again, no matter how hard I work and how good my intentions. (I have an old manuscript in my drawer that I pulled out recently. It was written fifteen years ago with the absolute best of intentions, and I almost cringed myself to death reading it. Thank God fasting that everyone rejected the damn thing; how right they were to do so.) I don’t want to screw up, but the fact is, I’ve got a shedload of things wrong in my 42 years on the planet to date and I see no reason why that’s likely to change.
I don’t want to get things wrong, because to get it wrong likely means that I hurt someone, and I’m not here to hurt people (except fictional bad guys, who can expect to be eaten by eels). But it’s dangerously easy to let my desire not to hurt people morph into a refusal to admit I have done so. I am not the kind of person who hurts others, therefore I didn’t hurt others and you’re just oversensitive. You took it the wrong way, you misunderstood, you’re making a drama about nothing. Because if I did hurt you, there goes my cherished self-image as a nice person who’s good at stuff, to be replaced with the self-image of a crass, stupid screw-up blundering her way over other people’s feet.
And of course the problem there is that it’s all about me, about my feelings when I screw up, my desire not to be a hurtful person. Rather than about the fact that I hurt you.
Humans are ego monsters. My pinprick of shame at feeling like a bad person can very easily seem more real, more important to me than the punch in the gut I delivered to someone else. My rugby team has, as their operating principles, the four pillars of strength, work rate, discipline, and humility, which is something I often muse on while they’re resetting the scrum for the fifteenth time. Humility can sound weak, but it isn’t a weakness: it’s something we have to learn, and strive for, and it goes hand in hand with strength. Strength without humility is bullying, and overbearing, and ultimately not strength at all—because if I can’t say I was wrong or It’s not all about me, if I can’t look honestly at myself and take another person’s weight on my heart, how weak must I really be?
And humility doesn’t just mean saying sorry. I had a friend who screwed up a lot, and would always apologise freely and generously for doing so. It took me a long time to realise that her apologies demanded not just that her friends forgive her, but that we then had to reaffirm what a good person she was because she apologised so humbly for the things she’d done to us–rather, than, you know, not repeatedly screwing us over in the first place. She’s not my friend any more.
Offering an apology doesn’t entitle anyone to forgiveness, and a performative apology–the kind made in a spirit of “look how sorry I am, therefore you have to forgive me!”–is just another way for the apologiser to feel better. We all know it. One of the great romance moments is ‘the grovel’—where the alpha male hero (usually) is brought to acknowledge what he did wrong. Readers are scalpel-sharp at distinguishing a good grovel, which is about unconditionally expressing remorse, making amends, changing things, from one which is designed to win forgiveness, smooth over the unpleasantness and re-establish the status quo.
Apologies are important, acknowledgement is important, but to my mind, the fundamental question is whether, having screwed up, I do better next time. Even if that just means, in practice, finding different ways to make less bad mistakes.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)
All of which is a great deal easier to say than do. But if I didn’t believe that people–I, we, all of us–can do just a tiny bit better by one another, I wouldn’t be writing romance.
KJ Charles just signed a contract to write horror. She is a writer and freelance editor who lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her most recent release is A Gentleman’s Position, which by coincidence features a hero with a lot of apologising to do.
It’s just a few days till A Gentleman’s Position publishes. This is the third book in my Regency ‘Society of Gentlemen’ trilogy, this one starring the highly principled Lord Richard Vane and his deeply unprincipled valet David Cyprian, and it’s going to tie up all sorts of things. Starting with Lord Richard’s conscience in knots. /evil grin/
We left the story in A Seditious Affair with radical bookseller Silas Mason moved into Lord Richard’s household; we pick things up a few weeks later in A Gentleman’s Position to see that Silas and Cyprian have struck up a friendship. So I wrote a special behind-the-scenes interlude, ‘A Confidential Problem’, about the, uh, challenging beginnings of that friendship, for a bit of insight into what was going on backstairs.
‘A Confidential Problem’ is a 4,000 word scene which takes place between chapters 15 and 16 of A Seditious Affair (after Silas has gone down to Arrandene, but before the finale). It’s not standalone, and won’t make any sense if you haven’t read A Seditious Affair, but since that’s still ludicrously cheap at the time of writing, I’d get on that now if I were you.
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A Gentleman’s Position comes out on 5th April.
When I say bad things, I am not talking about ‘guilty pleasures’ like schlocky airport novels and Jason Statham movies. I mean liking things that other people can point to and say “This hurts me”. Examples might be: citing TS Eliot as my favourite poet despite the antisemitism. Enjoying rape erotica, or books with loving depictions of torture. Liking thrillers that treat women as objects or parodies. Loving Piers Anthony’s Xanth series although they…no, I’m not going there, don’t ask. Problematic things.
Because many of us do like problematic things, and most things are problematic one way or another. Books are created by people within cultures, and both people and culture are often pretty crappy.
I’m going to use my own Bad Liking as an example throughout. I love Edwardian writing, particularly pulp shockers and detective novels. Some of this is outstanding, magnificently plotted, thrilling stuff. However, much of it is tainted with profound racism, antisemitism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia in the deepest sense of ‘fear’. White heterosexual Christian English upper-class able-bodied men are usually shown as the pinnacle of human evolution, the top of the pile. If you want to see the intersections of privilege in action, these books are for you.
I love them, but I know they contain awful things. Equally, I think that Chesterton’s 1911 poem ‘Lepanto’ is a masterpiece in poetic terms; it gives me goosebumps every time. I also know it is deeply problematic in its cultural politics, and the treatment of Islam is hide-behind-the-sofa bad. Does the poetry trump the Islamophobia; does the Islamophobia negate the poetry? Do I have to stop reading this poem, or denounce it, for the things wrong with it that are awful to a modern ear? Am I a bad person because I love it anyway?
1: Liking problematic things doesn’t [necessarily] make you a bad person
It’s very easy to feel personally accused when a thing we like is denounced. Which is why this gets so heated: if other people are slamming my favourites, my self-image as a nice person is threatened. Someone says, “This thing you love is shitty and hurtful”, and I hear, “You are shitty and hurtful for liking it.” And it’s important to remember that’s not [necessarily] true, and quite possibly isn’t what’s being said. (Square brackets exception: If you’re e.g. a massive racist and you read massively racist books to reinforce your worldview, you are a terrible person. I’m assuming basic decency on the part of readers here.)
So, say you read Edwardian pulp for the thrilling adventure sequences, or enjoy ‘dark romance’ without supporting kidnapping and mistreatment of women in reality, or see something lovely and hopeful in a romance trope that other people find objectionable or erasing. That happens. People are complicated; needs and ideas and experience and vulnerability intersect in a lot of complicated ways; many things are not problematic to Person A, no matter how glaringly obvious they are to Person B; and things can be simultaneously problematic and empowering to different people. Rape erotica might seem detestable exploitation to some, yet may also be a powerful way for rape survivors to handle their experience. People may choose to retreat into fiction that erases their problems by ignoring their existence. What’s good for one less-privileged person may also be harmful to another less-privileged person–as when a gay person finds something powerful in the ‘gay for you’ trope in m/m romance that makes many bisexual people feel erased and excluded. This stuff is very complicated.
But no: liking books with problematic things does not in itself make me, or you, a bad person.
2: Own your likings
There are two ways I can handle my unfortunate taste for Edwardian pulp.
- “It’s historical racism: people didn’t know any better so it doesn’t count. You can’t judge classics by today’s attitudes. It’s just part of the genre. Don’t read it if you don’t like it. If you say my favourite books are racist you’re implying I’m a racist, so now I don’t care about your opinion.”
- “This book has a lot of offensive aspects, I accept that.”
The reason I can like this stuff is because I am privileged (white cis het British). I am able to skid over the offensive or crass bits and enjoy the poetry, or the story. Good for me. But I have to remember that other people will not feel the same, that they may find these things brutally hurtful, and I should respect that. If someone posts a 1* review of Greenmantle or the Father Brown stories because they find them offensive, I don’t get to argue, “Oh, but it’s just the period they were written!” or “‘Foreigners = bad guys’ is a classic trope, get used to it,” or “The author’s really nice so he obviously didn’t mean the casual racism”. I need to accept that these issues are problematic, even if they aren’t hurtfully problematic for me.
A note on the all-too-popular “when you say my favourite books are hurting you, that hurts me, so we’re quits” argument: No. Firstly, this is very often an issue of privilege: men not having to worry about women’s problems, cis people not seeing trans people’s problems, het people missing queer people’s problems. If I have more privilege in this situation, I should be the one listening, because that’s basic fairness. Punch up, not down. And secondly, there is a big difference between “I feel bad because this thing erases or belittles people like me” and “I feel bad because someone was rude about a book I like”.
3: Learn what the problem is
People, being people, tend not to want to hear what’s wrong with our favourites. “Can’t you just let me enjoy this?” we say. “I like it, so don’t spoil my fun!”
But understanding what’s wrong doesn’t spoil books. Refusing to understand and sticking your fingers in your ears may spoil people. If I say, “I don’t care why X is a problem,” I’m not just refusing to take responsibility for my own choices: I am closing myself off from other people, and deliberately keeping my view narrow. That is the opposite of what books are meant to be about.
I have recently been made aware of several erasures and assumptions that I was making without noticing. Being told so was not very comfortable for me at all. But now I know a bit more than I did, and I hope that means I will write with better, wider understanding in the future. Which means I will write better books. Which is my job.
Critically engaging with problems–in books, in my own attitudes–makes me a better reader and writer, even if it stings. I don’t enjoy John Buchan’s WWI thriller Greenmantle less because I now notice its (really weird-ass) homophobia and Orientalism. If anything, my awareness of the context gives me a deeper understanding of what remains one of my favourite books, as well as helping me not be a jerk to other people about it.
Understanding the problem helps me formulate a nuanced response. If I know why people find a book problematic, I can weigh up the issues; maybe mitigate harm; hopefully avoid jumping into discussions of it with both feet and landing on someone’s toes.
4: Live with criticism
It doesn’t make problems go away if I deny that my favourite thing is hurtful to some people, or react angrily to criticism, or claim that everything is fine. I don’t have to agree that things I like are reprehensible. I don’t have to stop reading them even if I do agree. I can mentally dismiss criticism and walk away, or say, “I hadn’t considered that perspective,” and leave it at that. I can carry on liking the thing, knowing that other people have a massive problem with it, because life is complicated. But I can’t expect everyone else to shut up about their own needs for my convenience, and I cannot insist that nobody criticises the things I like, or points out that liking them is a matter of privilege.
Even better, though harder: I can try to listen, and open my perspective out, and then carry on liking the problematic thing with a fuller understanding. Or stop reading it, if I feel it is just really not okay, and find other books to supply whatever I was getting from it. Or even write the damn thing in a way that is less problematic in the first place. (I wrote Think of England specifically as a response to my difficulties with the Edwardian pulp I love, as an attempt to share the great things about it while acknowledging or avoiding the bad ones.)
All of which is to say: Liking books with problematic things doesn’t make you a bad person. How you handle that liking is what counts.
At RWA 2015, an editor from Pocket Books answered a question on diversity by saying that ‘diverse’ topics/authors were published in a couple of particular lines and not as part of the general list. The implication was that authors (not even just books, which is bad enough) would be channelled to lines based on ethnic origin. (Obviously, agents representing non-white authors would thus find them a harder sell, with fewer chances for publication.)
Rightly, the RWA has come down on this like a ton of bricks, refusing to accept corporate flannel from Pocket (who say this isn’t their policy) and demanding a clear commitment to equal treatment for all RWA members. This is a professional issue and that’s what they’re for.
Today board member Alyssa Day tweeted this:
‘Be nice’. Be nice.
The RWA is a membership organisation for professionals, with a substantial admittance fee. Its remit is to protect members’ interests. They are doing their job by going after a publisher who, according to their own editor, are behaving in a way that damages some RWA members’ interests.
And someone thinks they should be nice? Nice! What has ‘nice’ got to do with a professional dispute? What is there to be nice about?
There is currently a horrendous, damaging row going on in m/m romance. Some LGBT people reacted to material they found offensive and hurtful in forthright (or rude) terms; other people basically told them to shut up and sit down, it escalated. And a lot of people have ignored the hurt being complained of, and instead focused on the tone and manner in which the complaints were made. Because they were angry and blunt about stuff people liked. They weren’t being nice.
Now, I’m an author. I know words matter. I know people react differently to different tones. I know that it’s possible to put your case politely, and can be much more effective to do so.
I’m also a woman. I know that putting your case politely can also make it much easier for people to ignore you. I know that it’s possible to say the same thing politely a dozen times, and be ignored, and then when you finally stop being polite, they say, “Calm down, love!” or “There’s no need to shout!” as though raising your voice the thirteenth time is completely unreasonable.
And I’m a human being. I recognise that actually, sometimes, people are no longer able to put their case politely because they are driven to expletive-peppered fury by the relentless goddamn bullshit of other people…
…who then turn around and say, “Hey, be nice!”
Be nice when someone’s treating you as if you don’t matter, as if people like you have never mattered, when your pain is dismissed as less important than the comfort or embarrassment or convenience of the person causing your pain. Be nice.
Of course I don’t mean it’s good for everyone to shout and rage all the time, as if that’s the only alternative. I prefer civil discussion to shouting and raging too. I would much rather that everyone spoke respectfully, which is only likely to happen when everyone listens respectfully. Let’s try to do that, shall we?
But let’s have a clear example about telling people to be nice.
When my 7-year-old son comes up to me whining, “It’s not fair, my horrible sister won’t play with me because she’s horrible,” that is a teachable moment. That is a time to talk about tone, and being nice, and how the way you approach people makes a difference to how they listen.
When my 7-year-old son comes up to me with a cut lip shrieking that a boy hit him and took his football, I don’t tell him, “Speak more clearly and don’t cry, your tone of voice must be calm and reasonable.” I don’t tell him, “You’re angry, and anger isn’t nice, so that boy deserves the football more than you do.” Instead, I try to fix his problem, his real and legitimate distress, because that is what we do when someone is actually hurt.
Assuming we give a damn for people’s hurt, of course. Which we would, if we were nice.
Let’s be nice.
I am thrilled to announce that, in line with the publication of Rag and Bone, artist Mila May has created a graphic novel-style version of the events of chapter 2. Which are, let me say, quite sinister events.
Rag and Bone continues the story of Ned Hall, waste-man, and Crispin Tredarloe, accidental warlock, who first appeared in ‘A Queer Trade‘. (You don’t have to read ‘A Queer Trade’ first. I would, but hey, I’m that sort of person. Anyway, it’s 99c. What can go wrong?)
Ahem. So we’re in the Victorian London of my Charm of Magpies series. Ned buys and sells used paper from his store next door to a rag and bottle shop. Crispin’s life is slightly more complicated. He was trained to use his magical powers via a pen made from his own fingerbone that writes in his own blood–a dangerous, unlawful practice. He could be arrested for it, but that’s the least of his problems: a blood pen can steal your soul.
Luckily, after the events of ‘A Queer Trade’, Crispin’s been learning to manage his magic the proper way, without using the illegal blood pen. So everything’s absolutely fine now. Right?
Without further ado: I give you Mila May’s Rag and Bone.
Rag and Bone is out now from Samhain.
Mila May is available for character art, covers and more. Her attention to detail slays me every time.
Rag and Bone will be my last book with Samhain, as they are very sadly closing their doors. They have been a wonderful publisher to work with, taking on my first book out of the slush pile at a time when Victorian paranormal m/m romance wasn’t even a subgenre yet. My editor Anne Scott has been endlessly helpful and supportive; all my covers with Samhain are glorious, from Lou Harper, Angela Waters, Kanaxa, and Erin Dameron-Hill. I will miss them quite painfully and they are a massive loss to the romance community and to publishing. I’m glad Rag and Bone made it out under their aegis. They are still in business, just not taking on new titles as they wind down, so check them out here.
I was just thinking I haven’t rageblogged in ages, and feeling happy that I have my Twitter feed curated to be interesting and challenging but not aneurysm-inducing, and then this comes along.
I have a lot of things to say in response to this. Most of them are two-word phrases ending ‘off’ or ‘you’, but let me try to be a little more articulate.
I don’t know anything about the Huffington Post’s payment to writers, never having written for them. I do know they ‘broke even’ on $146million revenue in 2014, and there has been speculation that it may be sold for $1billion. Apparently it’s not turning a profit because of investment, but this is a huge site bringing in huge amounts of money through advertising revenue. They are not unable to pay writers. If they don’t, one can only assume it’s because they don’t want to.
This is not an unusual state of mind. The Twitter account @forexposure_txt quotes the many and varied ways people have of asking other people to give their time, skills, experience and talents for nothing.
Our society has a general idea that content, knowledge and creativity should all be free. Free: it’s such a glorious word, isn’t it? Free, free as a bird! The creative heart should be free to sing, and the creative mind should be free to imagine. And the creative work they produce should be free to anyone who’d like to use it for their own profit on an advertising-festooned website.
Let’s just look at that quote, shall we?
We know it’s real… It’s not been forced or paid for.
‘Real.’ That’s the holy grail, of course. We want writing to be genuine and real and heartfelt; we despise the false and the fake. The opposition here is clear: either writing is ‘real’ and from the heart, or it is ‘forced’ and thus insincere. And what could cause someone to write in this ‘forced’ and fraudulent way?
Well, the nimble coupling of “forced or paid for” shows us that. The villain here is greed, of course, sordid financial considerations. Writing, according to this, has either literary worth or financial worth but not both. In fact, assigning financial worth by paying writers negates the potential worth of what they write. Because if it’s paid for, it’s not real. Instead of writing because your Muse compels you, like a proper artist, you’re just doing it for filthy lucre. You sell-out scumbag.
Let’s be honest: if producers don’t pay people to write, then the people writing are the ones who can afford not to be paid. Which, as with publishing internships, means that the people who can get ahead are the ones with money. The rich parents, the lucrative day job, the well-paid spouse. When producers don’t pay for content, it privileges the voices of the wealthy.
That all seems rather at odds with the internal memo from Arianna Huffington quoted here for a HuffPo strand saying they should:
start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity and grace.
You know what’s a real challenge for many people? Paying their rent; feeding their families; keeping afloat. You know what makes that harder? Not being paid.
I face the challenge of my monthly bills with ‘perseverance’ because I keep writing in the face of people who pirate my books and pay me puny sums for hours of work. I face it with ‘creativity’ because creativity, writing, is what I’ve got to sell. But I’m fucked if I’ll face it with ‘grace’ when someone who’s probably on six figures tells me that the very act of putting value on my work makes it intrinsically less valuable.
The thing that actually makes writing forced for many authors is the knowledge that you have to jam out another thousand words, meet that deadline, do that goddamn article, somehow wedge another book in this year because otherwise you aren’t going to earn enough. It’s not the act of being paid that leads to soulless writing for profit: it’s the fact of needing money in the first place.
Paying authors lets them write. It doesn’t make them less genuine, or less hungry (except in the actual literal sense, obviously), or less heartfelt, or less busy. It just makes them able to live and thus do their job, ie writing. In which it is exactly like the salary paid to the people who edit magazines and websites that ask writers to contribute for nothing, which I assume they don’t turn down because they’re keeping it real, man.
And you can trust me on this. After all, I wrote it for free.
KJ Charles is a full time writer and freelance editor. Rag and Bone is out from Samhain on 1 March.
Look, I would not normally blog about my holidays, but seriously. Mr KJC and I ditched the kids and went to Burma (now, but disputedly, called Myanmar) and it was perhaps the most extraordinarily interesting and beautiful place I’ve ever been. It’s also hauling itself out of the grinding poverty caused by years of abuse by the psychotic regime of the generals, and tourism is playing a large part in that, so I wanted to share the love. Plus I’ve had so many people ask about it that this seems the only sensible place to answer everyone at once. So without further ado, here are my holiday snaps. Feel free to bail out now.
It’s hot there. We went in December, the depths of winter, and it was maybe 33 in Yangon, 28-30 in Bagan. However, the nights are cold everywhere except Yangon. We went to a hill station, Kalaw, and it was about 4 degrees at night. Staying in unheated houses on our hill walk was bitter. Bring a jumper and thermal pyjamas if trekking.
December was getting very dusty and dry. Given the choice I’d suggest going in October, when the rainy season is recently over and everything is fresh and in bloom.
The food is really good. REALLY good.
Lots of curries and tons of vegetables. People will ask if you like it spicy with almost too much regard for timid Western palates.
Eat the street food, it’s amazing.The tiny quail’s eggs inside pancakes are particularly good.
You can’t drink the tap water, but pretty much everywhere uses bottled water for ice and often to wash vegetables for salad (an environmental disaster, I know). The only thing that made me sick were the malaria pills, which weren’t even necessary. Not only is there no malaria on the main tourist trail, I didn’t get bitten by a mosquito once, and I am normally an all-you-can-eat blood bonanza.
It’s really safe. No sexual hassle, no sense of threat anywhere–except on one occasion where our guide got in the way of a military person on holiday, who went psychotically, frighteningly Taxi Driver on us, screaming with unfettered rage, spittle flying–because someone had spoiled his photo. That was a reminder that the country is still emerging from the grip of one of the worst regimes in the world. So was the man we met who reminisced about his friends being jailed for eight years after the failed 1988 rebellion and emerging from prison utterly broken in mind and body. Terrible, terrible things have been done to this country. It still felt like a good place of good people. It deserves so much better.
All the guidebooks say to bring fresh, new, unfolded dollars. They aren’t kidding; people will hand tatty ones back. Same for 5000 kyat notes. Smaller denominations tend to resemble snot rags, and that appears to be fine.
This is a Buddhist country. You need sandals that can be easily slipped off for visiting temples, and clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. Don’t be that tourist. I brought a bunch of stuff and ended up wearing a longyi most of the time because they’re so absurdly comfortable. So did Mr KJC in the end.
There is very little hassle, people are polite and dignified. Our guides took us to a lot of places like jaggery (palm sugar) makers, cigar makers, silver workshops etc.
This is the sort of thing I have always tended to avoid the hell out of, but at the moment this is still people working by hand, with extraordinary skills, using incredibly intricate traditional techniques, really worth seeing, and producing fantastic work. We brought *so much stuff* home.
Perhaps the worst thing I saw on my travels was in a fairtrade shop for a charity that is attempting to bring water tanks to rural villages, where women have to walk miles each way on mountain roads to get water. The shop was selling handmade goods like a hand-woven bag of wonderful quality for $12. A tourist–a European tourist who was doubtless spending thousands of Euros on her holiday–stood in there and bargained to drive down the price of fairtrade goods being sold for the benefit of people so poor their lives are basically medieval. What the hell can you say about people like that.
Rangoon, as was.
A thriving city visibly transforming itself into a modern capital, but still with markets on many corners, restaurants where you eat sitting on plastic stools on the road, missing paving slabs through which you can fall into open sewage, packs of dogs roaming the street and howling at night.
If you like cities, this is the absolute best; we stayed five days, just roaming through crowded streets, checking out the crumbling colonial architecture, exploring the fabulous markets, eating any amount of wonderful things, and people-watching.
If you don’t like cities, just go to Shwedagon Paya, which is pretty much a Buddhist St Mark’s Square.
The stupa is covered in real gold, estimated value $30bn, and topped with diamonds.
World Heritage Site doesn’t begin to describe this. It’s a massive plain with over 2500 pagodas, stupas and temples, many a thousand years old. I mean, there are so many. It’s incomprehensible; it leaves you slack-jawed.
Many have old frescos and paintings, you can go into some of them and watch the sunset over the plain, or splurge on a hot air balloon trip.
Hti’s Cocktail Bar does the best rum sours we had in Myanmar (the local Mandalay rum is excellent). Their happy hour is a two-for-one deal, which they interpret as ‘if you order two rum sours we’ll bring you four’. I’m not going to argue with that.
A hill station, with plenty of old colonial buildings and a big military presence because of rebels in the northern Shan State. It’s an interesting place to roam.
It also has an absolutely fantastic dive bar that only serves rum sours (brutal ones), with everyone huddled round the circular bar from the cold, half locals and half tourists, talking in five languages at once, and a guy on guitar singing Coldplay songs in Burmese.
Trek to Inle
You could easily walk Kalaw to Inle in two days, one night. (It’s downhill; the other way would be very hard work.) Don’t even think about doing it without a guide, you’re a long way from rescue helicopters here. Our walk looped through fields and forests and over railway lines.
It was outstandingly, staggeringly beautiful. This is a hill walk, you don’t need big trekking boots. Our guide wore flip flops.
We stopped in various villages. Tribe is still a big thing in Burma, there are maybe 130 ethnic groups, and people in neighbouring villages have mutually incomprehensible languages.
Most of the agriculture is done by hand in the hills of the Shan state, and many villages are self sufficient, producing their own oil and rice.
There was no running water where we stayed overnight, electricity only from solar panels, and that very limited. Washing facilities are a bucket of water outside. We brought travel backgammon and played by torchlight because it was pitch dark by 6.30. The stars were beyond belief.
Glorious. A huge lake fringed by houses on stilts. People grow food on floating rafts of earth and compost that can be moved around and staked into place. I can’t tell you how lovely this place is.
A village off Inle Lake that is basically a big market, and an incredible area of ruined stupas. Just, honestly, jawdropping.
We didn’t go to Mandalay, but everyone we spoke to who did says it’s a concrete traffic jam. We didn’t make it to Mawlamyine either but I really wish we had, it sounds stunning.
Basically, this was the trip of a lifetime and a massive privilege to have the chance, and if you are thinking about it and in a position to go, I can’t say enough good things. Happy to answer questions in the comments!
We had our flights and hotels booked for us, and guides arranged where necessary, through Pro Niti Travel, who are a local firm and were absolutely excellent. I recommend wholeheartedly.
Ending the year with a bang here…
I’m delighted to say that I’ve signed the contract for a second trilogy with Loveswept (Penguin Random House, publishers of the Society of Gentlemen).
Set in the 1870s, among the dubious, the déclassé and the dishonest, the trilogy is about high birth, low life, family secrets, blackmail, lies, murder, the love that dare not speak its name, and the love that speaks its name loud and clear, with pictures. A pornographer and a socialist join forces to investigate murder in London’s sexual underworld; a fraudulent spiritualist and a sceptical journalist get tangled up in the search for a deadly family secret; a music-hall trapeze artist may not survive an unexpected inheritance unless a private enquiry agent can find some answers.
You may be familiar with the works of Wilkie Collins, who was basically Dickens on crack. He wrote balls-to-the-wall sensation fiction full of murder and inheritance shenanigans and people unmentionable in polite society, and did so while drinking laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) by the pint, chased down by champagne. Well, this is my go at Wilkie Collins, though not at his personal habits unless things deteriorate quite considerably over here.
This is a mostly m/m romance trilogy—it includes my first genderqueer main character—and I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into this project. More news as it comes!
I am also making my first venture into self-publishing with ‘A Queer Trade’. This 16K story, first published in the Charmed & Dangerous anthology, introduced Ned Hall and Crispin Tredarloe, who star in the forthcoming novel Rag and Bone (coming from Samhain, March 2016). I’m bringing out ‘A Queer Trade’ in early February as a separate edition. How about this cover by Catherine Dair?
‘A Queer Trade’ and Rag and Bone are both set in the Charm of Magpies world, running alongside the Magpie stories. ‘A Queer Trade’ happens in the summer of A Case of Possession, and Rag and Bone takes place simultaneously with the opening action of Jackdaw. (You don’t have to read ‘A Queer Trade’ to follow Rag and Bone, but as with any series, it helps to know what’s gone on, and they are reasonably closely linked. Anyway, I like it.)
Rag and Bone comes out on 28 March, and here’s the cover again (Angela Waters for Samhain) for the sheer glorious loveliness of it. I might have to write about 15 more of these.
In other news, A Seditious Affair is now out in ebook and audio, and the reviews are pretty nice so far. 🙂
This book is, in all ways, an absolute triumph for KJ Charles. (Binge on Books)
A fabulous installment in what is shaping up to be a wonderful series (Joyfully Jay, 5*)
I’m not one to sob over a book, but I’ll admit to having a tight throat on a couple of occasions. It’s all glorious. (Sinfully, 5*)
A Seditious Affair is not a fluffy read but it is a story you can really sink your teeth into. It’s complex, sensual, raw and gosh darn it – SUPER romantic. It’s one of my favorite reads of 2015. (For What It’s Worth)
Let me tell you why this novel is so phenomenal that I skipped two meals and disconnected my phone so I could read it uninterrupted. … heart-wrenching romances, clever characters, buckets of chemistry, and a conflict that keeps your turning pages as fast as your e-reader allows you. (Just Love, 5*)
Ms Charles has done an amazing job of weaving a compelling and deeply romantic love story through the rich tapestry of real historical events. … I was completely won over by both Silas and Dominic, who are wonderfully drawn, strong characters, and by the sheer depth of emotion that lies between them… Without doubt, A Seditious Affair is one of the best books I’ve read this year. (All About Romance, A+)
That’s it from me for now. I’m signing off for Christmas and then off on holiday, back in mid January. Season’s greetings, happy new year, and see you in 2016 for more books!