6011.7 – a new novel

Josh_Mowll_Lifeboat

I’ve recently written a novel solely aimed at adults called 6011.7. This is exciting new territory for me, and award-winning publisher Unbound have taken on. The idea is to crowdfund the book initially, which has advantages and disadvantages. I intend to write a post focusing on this approach to publishing very soon.

The novel is about love, hate and Dada. Quite a trio. This is unlike anything I’ve written previously, so please don’t back or buy this if you are expecting something along the lines of my other books; 6011.7 most definitely contains strong language and adult themes.

From the beginning I wanted 6011.7 to have a distinctive look and feel; I’ve always enjoyed epistolary novels because they have a directness, intimacy and tension all of their own, so I quickly settled on this as a style. I really enjoy wrapping novels in ephemera and photographs to bring them to life, and to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction; with 6011.7 this will require quite a bit of work when it comes to artworking every page (yes, every gorgeous page, as each will be unique down to the smudges and mottling… and you can never have enough mottling in my opinion). I want readers to know they are buying something markedly different from all of the other lovely books shouting: ’Buy me. No BUY ME! No, no, BUY ME!’.

The story’s narrative revolves around an expedition to hunt for mythical sea creatures in 1921. In the planning stages, the monsters had been very much plot motive, not character motive. I hasten to add my novel isn’t anything like a Ridley Scott film. When I started to write, the characters’ personal monsters expanded into very fruitful territory: how their hidden daemons had influenced their lives and relationships. This was, for the most part, more interesting than writing chase scenes with big Kraken-sized beasts… although you can’t have a monster hunt without monsters, so I needed to find a way to accommodate and satisfy this aspect of the book.

I’ve always loved Dada, and had included it as a theme in a small way from the first draft. This was one of the most enjoyable parts of finding the book’s drive and direction. I have often worried that Dada lurks in Surrealism’s shadow, and yet to my mind it was far more dynamic and innovative; I could see a very attractive connection between Dada and the absurd challenge of hunting for mythical sea monsters.

The irrational qualities of Dada chimed with the script more and more as the story developed. I’ve found love and relationships can be at times absurd, rude, funny, and irrational, so these parallels were fascinating to work with. Dadaism grew in the book like ivy, and overtook all aspects of the story, giving it a direction, a very distinctive look and an overarching theme. It’s an illusive artistic movement at the best of times, and yet it was a surprisingly firm structure on which to build a novel.

I hope will be a very unusual and beautifully packaged book if I managed to raise enough interest through crowdfunding. There are no guarantees I will make the target: if I don’t the book won’t happen. If you are interested, you can find out more at the link below, where there is also a video of me discussing the book:
https://unbound.com/books/6011-7

Creating the Launch Sequence

This is the final part of the rocket build – I’ve already posted the short film (see previous post), so now I can explain what it was all for.

One of the main reasons I wanted to build the rocket was to create a 30 cell animation of it launching, as we are planning to have a flick book effect running for 30 pages in the final book.

This is how I did it. I’ve numbered the pictures above to make things easier to understand:

1. Picture of the finished rocket. At 9ft long it is big enough to look very realistic through the camera lens. Any smaller and it probably wouldn’t have worked.

2. Dad and I pegged out a huge blue plastic sheet as a background. This made it easier to cut out the rocket in Photoshop later. Next we taped down a standard tape measure along the route the rocket would take (yellow in the picture).

3. The idea was to make sure that when I took the sequence of still images, the rocket was moving away from the house in consistent, measured distances so the animation worked correctly. This needed to be pretty accurate.

4. Me, looking confused, as I tried to work out how much the rocket needed to move for each frame. Mathematics was never my strongest subject.

5. The high resolution stills were taken from an upstairs bedroom. This shot is one from about halfway through the sequence.

6. Another shot in the sequence.

7. In the next few pictures (7-10), I’m going to explain how I combined images to create a single animation cell. This is an early shot where the rockets engines have just ignited. Dad is keeping the sunlight off the rocket with a table. This image is taken with a good quality 8 megapixel camera.

8. This is a still taken using the high-speed camera as we fired the CO2. The camera takes a blast of 72 images over 3 seconds, so is ideal because the CO2 fires out so quickly. Sadly, the picture quality is only 3 megapixels, so not quite sharp enough to use in the book. So what I wanted here was JUST the smoke, and because it is blurry stuff, the loss of quality didn’t matter.

9. This is the single cell created from the various pictures. I’ve cut out the still rocket picture taken with the 8 megapixel camera, and overlaid the smoke from the lower quality 3 megapixel camera. I’ve created a background in Photoshop, added spotlights, adjusted the smoke and added flame colour (or color, depending where you live in the world!).

10. I took this shot of a crane. I’ll let you work out which bit I used for the launch tower in pic 9.

11 This is a shot from later in the sequence. I’ve darkened down the rocket quite a bit, and worked on the flame and smoke trail in photoshop.

12. The final sequence. It took about 2 days to create all 30 cells.

Thank you Mr Apple Mac and Mr Photoshop, but mostly a big thank you to my Dad for moving the rocket up the garden 1ft at a time, without complaint.

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 6: Crossing China (part 2)

Day 6. Aboard the train to Urumqi.

I sit on a small fold down seat in the corridor and drink in views of China for hour after hour. It is very cold outside and there is a light dusting of snow on the flat, featureless landscape. This gives the whole scene the appearance of a lightly dusted cake. We are near Diwopu. A low mist hangs in the air and cuts visibility to a half a mile or so. Every so often a line of telegraph poles disappears into the murk towards some impossibly remote outpost. This is Sinkiang, and it is a truly desperate place.

We pass 4 blokes, heavily wrapped, standing beside the line in the middle of nowhere. I assume they are railway workers. There seems to be no other reason for the to be there, but who knows?

The businesswoman has left overnight and we have another passenger. He is quite dapper – and quite possibly a doctor; he sets about taking the pulses of the old couple with casual ease. I feel like getting in line for a free medical. He tells a few jokes and soon has them laughing. Again there is the impenetrable language barrier so it’s all lost on me. Despite our apparent remoteness, the doc makes a couple of calls on his cell phone! I return to watching the hypnotic landscape outside, while listening to Fawlty Towers on my iPod – as strange a flavour combination as you can imagine.

Later:

The land is more hilly, but no less bleak as we skirt the Gobi desert. ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’ play on the carriage PA, and, rather alarmingly for a journey that’s lasted so long already, the tune: ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’. Surely not? Surely we’re nearly there?

We pass Hami and the snow begins to clear. The mist lifts to reveal a landscape of muted tans, blues, and greys. The only movement to be seen is small dust devils twisting and spinning like desert djinns. We’re now in the vast wastelands of Western China and it is just as unremittingly empty as I’d imagined. There is no vegetation, and no hint (other than the railway) that mankind has ever made much of an impression here. This is the territory in which a huge chunk of Operation Storm City is set. Sinkiang is suddenly no longer a name I’ve written many times, but a very real and dangerous place just outside the thin glass of the carriage window.

Evening

I reach Urumqi (also known as Wulumqi depending on your map) in the evening. It’s a big, ugly Chinese city mainly built  of concrete. I give the old couple a postcard of London and say goodbye as best I can before climbing down onto the platform. We have reached  the geographic centre of Asia and the most landlocked city in the world. There are no signs in English as there had been at Shanghai station. I drift out on the jostling tide of my fellow passengers. Outside, I’m immediately surrounded by eager cab drivers who flock around me. I show one of them the picture of the hotel I want; he nods vigourously, pushes me into his tired looking minibus, then drives me there at top speed as if his life depended on it.

The hotel has a free room (thank goodness). I certainly need a bath and change of clothes. The building is designed in the bland international style, and towers up to about 30 stories high. It is very, very new. There’s oil in these parts, which naturally brings a certain level of luxury trailing in its wake. In my sparklingly room I find flowers floating in the lavatory bowl! This I take to be an artistic touch rather than a mistake. Either way it is a welcomed change of comfort levels from the squatter facilities on the train. From a Chinese town on rails to utter luxury in under 20 minutes. The contrast is almost too much.

I find the bar and order a cold beer. The bartender pours it slowly, just like the famous scene from the 1959 classic film: ‘Ice Cold in Alex’. I wonder idly how many railway sleepers I have travelled across on the 4077km (2,500 mile) journey of  the last two days. I wonder, too, about the old couple on the train. To spend that long with people you cannot speak to is so utterly frustrating. We crossed China together! They were my travelling companions on a great journey. We all suffered that terrible night of snoring  – and survived! What on earth were they doing in Shanghai? I expect they were wondering much the same about me  – What on earth is he doing going to Urumqi?

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 5: Crossing China

Day 5

Aboard the Shanghai-Urumqi train across China (see map below).

The aroma aboard is garlicky and a little fetid. The cabin is a four berth, soft  sleeper class, run by a grumpy female attendant. It’s all very clean, with a communal thermos of hot water, a small table beneath which is a heater, a pillow and duvet, and best of all – a pair of disposable slippers for each person! I’m directed to a bottom bunk on which a businessman is slouched, one leg up and arms crossed. He is a little overweight and has something of the Ricky Gervaise about him. My other two companions are an elderly couple. Somehow I struggle to communicate that I am from London. After that, conversation drops off to zilch.

Gervaise eventually takes an upper bunk. His talent is for snoring – at an Olympic standard. He sounds like a single cylinder steam engine, making it seem, for all the world, as if the train is being pulled along by him. The up-stroke sounds tortured, confined and difficult. Then a longish pause. Long enough for one to think perhaps he has died. The gasping down-stroke hisses as if steam were escaping. All night! Sleep is therefore elusive. I unearth my iPod for a soporific blast of Coldplay and lull myself to sleep.

Gervaise is woken at 6am by the carriage attendant. He alights at Zheng Zhou. The elderly couple look exhausted by last night’s row. I certainly am. A lovely calm has descends on the cabin as if someone had switched off loud music. The old man and I smile at each other in relief and there is a brief moment of connection. He nods. I nod and smile.

I look on my map of China to gauge progress, but it’s pitifully slow.

Later:

I have been gazing out of the window at the hypnotic Chinese agricultural landscape. It is very flat here near Xian. There are mounds in many of the fields which I take to be graves. The Christians have been through – I’ve seen two churches, their crosses proudly displayed. My great, great uncle, the Right Reverend Howard West Kilvinton Mowll was a Bishop in China during the 1920s, and I wonder idly if he’d ever visited.

We pass the desperate vista of people sifting through rubbish tips… everywhere there’s evidence of building, people, agriculture. The houses range from track side shacks to smart concrete buildings with satellite dishes.

We have a replacement for Gervaise. She is a business woman – all smart suit and briefcase. She has what I take to be her son with her, but there is no room for him. She is trying to arrange a move so they can be together, I think. I have the feeling that I, a solo European, am something of a surprise to her. The rearrangements are cut short by a drunk woman in a compartment at the end of the coach yelling.

2PM

It is cold now. I stretch out for a sleep, but the businesswoman is perched at the end of my bunk so this is difficult. Oh, for an upper bunk! My mind switches to the journey. I had been planning to jump off at Turpan (one stop before Urumqi), but I’m not sure I’m allowed. I’ve been issued with a berth card in exchange for my ticket, and I can see I could very easily  infringe the strict rules if I get off before my listed destination. This means I must plan for a night in Urumqi. I ponder the thought that I’ll still be aboard this train in 24hours time, and reach for Evelyn Waugh.

Late afternoon:

We are now in the mountains dusted with snow. The track follows a steep and dramatic gorge through which a red river flows. We pass through several tunnels and into a flat plateau surrounded by low mountains. This is the China of one’s imagination.

After Gan Gou, the architecture is suddenly more defensive as if we are reaching more dangerous territory. Houses have outer courtyards without windows, giving them the appearance of small forts. The roads are rough tracks. Everywhere terracing has cut and shaped the landscape of tan coloured earth. A bleak place without a scrap of green to be seen. The temperature is plummeting and we are heading deeper into China. Ahead is what has been described as China’s wild west – Sinkiang.

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 4: Leaving Shanghai

Day 4

Several problems present themselves:

1) I need to buy some gloves. It will be cold in Sinkiang (Xinjiang).

2) I need to post some gifts back to the UK.

3) Cash. Credit and debit card cash machines are difficult to find where I’m going, so I must plan on taking enough money to last me through to Chengdu.

I ask for directions at reception to the post office, and am told it is one block up. This turns out to be a lie. I walk four blocks as the rain starts to pour down. I find the post office near Soochow Creek, nowhere near where I’d been directed to.

The building is worth the effort: huge and European in style, it has a sweeping double staircase, all carved with great care in the finest stone. Upstairs I find a tranquil scene – perhaps 120 kiosks, but only 4 open for business. A very helpful chap wraps my gifts in brown paper and string with great nimbleness… and at absolutely no cost!

Just when I think everything is going swimmingly, I hit Chinese bureaucracy. I am presented with four forms:

1) Customs

2) Delivery

3) More customs

4) A fourth form in French… and my French is very fourth form.

I spend a happy ten minutes declaring all sorts of things, and assuring the Chinese government I’m not exporting priceless antiquities, then queue up at the kiosks. (My written assurances weren’t good enough it seems, and the package arrived in the UK some weeks later having been thoroughly searched.)

We English pride ourselves on our queuing, our ability to wait our turn in an orderly manner and not complain. Hmmmh…

An important lesson learnt – kindness and manners have little currency in a Chinese post office. After I’ve been rudely usurped three times, I see my chance and dive in elbows out, putting my height advantage to good use. The package is snatched away from me by the member of staff, weighed, stamped, stamped again and dispatched. I am almost dragged out of the way by the next customer.

Gloves are not fashionable in China as far as I can see. I trawl the department stores of the Nanjing Road, but all I hear from the shop assistants is ‘No got’. In the process I am offered some smashing gloves ‘for lady’, fingerless driving gloves with chequered pattern, and my favourite – a pair of boxing gloves! Imagine crossing the deserts of China wearing a pair of those beauties.

I finally manage to pick up a pair of North Face gloves from a street stall. Closer examination of the general build quality leads me to think these are more South Face than North Face, but hey, they work. I also pick up a small SW radio to listen to the BBC World Service. I stock up with a huge wad of money from an ATM, and return to the hotel to pack. I feel weighed down with food and water, but I’m not sure what to expect on this colossal train journey. Rather take too much than too little, I decide. I shower then stash the cash in my boots.

I check out from the eccentric Peace Hotel, then take a cab across town to the railway station. We drive on elevated roads for most of the journey through Shanghai. It is still raining hard. Cold English rain. The neon reflects in puddles. The cab stinks of cheap, harsh tobacco, and a small flat screen in the headrest blasts out adverts in a language I don’t understand. On either side the skyscrapers loom and I feel like I’m in the film ‘Blade Runner’. This is the future. This will be one of the most important cities of the 21st century. A sudden pang of nervousness at the thought of where I am, what I am doing and where I’m going.

What a station – vast and busy. I walk into the ‘Hard Class’ waiting area, where thousands of people sit on the floor beside their carefully tied luggage. I show my ticket to the inspector and he laughs, and hurries me through a locked door and steers me into the very plush ‘Soft Class’ waiting area with chrome and leather seats, a café,the promise of a wash room and even drinking water. My bags are scanned, and the bleeper goes wild at my Faraday Bag (see retro blog 1). Nobody is bothered. I see that they have no interest in the result of the scan; they just happy enough to see that you’ve been through the process. Chinese bureaucracy is a strange animal.

My train number appears reassuringly in red on the smart electronic board, but it’s not boarding yet. I’ve still an hour to wait. I tuck into Evelyn Waugh and relax a little.

Shot into Shanghai at 420KPH aboard the MAGLEV train, I am to leave on the less glamourous T52 to Urumqi… and in the pouring rain.