Monday, December 31, 2012

A Box of Birds: thank you

As 2012 draws to a close, it's a good time to say thank you again to the people who made A Box of Birds possible. That's a lot of people.

Readers of this blog will know that crowd-funding a book is a long haul, and that it depends on the generosity of many friends and strangers. I hope to have got some of you interested in Yvonne's story and the questions it raises. We've covered a lot of ground, from the fundamental question of why human beings tell stories, through my own particular story of getting addicted to writing fiction, to the practical issue of how to balance fiction-writing with doing science.

Those who pledged for the special edition hardback should have received their copy by now. I hope you enjoy reading it, and that we can keep the conversation going.

Just before Christmas I went to London to sign some copies for those who had pledged at that level. Here's a picture of me and my editor, Rachael, working hard to get them signed and dedicated before the courier arrived to take them back to the warehouse for dispatch.

Don't forget that there are plenty more great books needing support at Unbound, and that your support could help to make any of these books happen. For a recent catch-up on how crowd-funding is taking root, see this piece in the Spectator.

Happy New Year to all of you!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Pieces of Light: 2012 in review

It's been good to see Pieces of Light appearing on a few of the end-of-year round-up lists:

In the Sunday Times, Christopher Potter chose it as one of his science Books of the Year:
In Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough has had the arresting idea of writing a book about memory that is also a memoir. As a psychologist clearly well up on the latest research, he shows how memory itself relies on language and storytelling. Investigating his own memories with a writerly eye, he brings to vibrant life scenes from a childhood refreshingly free of misery.
In the Sunday Express, historian Bettany Hughes said it was the book she would most like to find under her tree: 'a very clever book', she called it.

The New Scientist, who reviewed the book back in July, picked it as one of their top ten popular science books of the year, calling it 'a moving tour through the unique deceptions of memory'. They are running a promotion where you can win all ten books on the list.

Finally, the excellent podcast series Little Atoms have picked it as one of their top ten books of 2012. I talked to Neil from Little Atoms about the book back in August.

You can read some of the reviews from earlier in the year in the panel on the right.

There's still time to grab a copy for a last-minute Christmas present. In the US, you'll have to wait until 19 March, when the book is published by HarperCollins. Here's how the US cover looks. The book is also available for pre-order.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

To The River

I didn't get to see Jez Butterworth's West-End-and-Broadway smash Jerusalem, so I wasn't sure what to expect when, a couple of months ago, I sat down to read the script for his new play. I had been invited to go along to rehearsals to talk to the cast about memory, not least because The River is about fishing, and it's a fishing memory that opens my new book Pieces of Light.

I found it a fascinating, deliciously subtle piece which was still shifting and resonating in my mind after my several readings. When I went along to rehearsals to meet the team, it was confirmed to me that the play is very much about how memories define us and trap us. The script dealt expertly with the several different kinds of memory involved in the story, from elaborated, self-defining memories of childhood to shocking shards of trauma. I'd gone along very early in rehearsals, and was looking forward to seeing how the play developed over the rest of the rehearsal period and the first few performances.

On Thursday I was lucky enough to see the production for real. The professional reviewers have done a better job of reviewing it than I could, and so I'll just say that I loved it. Three(-ish; there's a plot point about that) complex and intriguing characters were brought to life by outstanding performances, and there were some electric moments as the power relations among the lovers shifted cataclysmically. There is a scene involving a scarlet dress which is one of the most compelling things I've seen on stage. The play is also very funny. I'd been told to sneak a peek at the bookshelf on the set, and I was thrilled to see my book up there, looking out over the fishing hut in which all the events unfold.

If you get a chance to catch this amazing play, do go and see it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Box of Birds: the cover art

Last week's special A Box of Birds event at the Durham Book Festival was great fun. Thanks to everyone who came along, and to Professor Simon James for his excellent chairing.

There are still a couple of days left to be listed as a subscriber. The list that will go in the back of the book will be closed at noon on Monday 5 November. You can see who has already supported the book here.

Unbound's designer, Dan Mogford, has been hard at work on a jacket design, and I'm delighted to reveal it here for the first time. I love it; please let me know what you think!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday at the Durham Book Festival

It's a busy Saturday for me next week at the Durham Book Festival.

First, I'll be hosting a School of Life event on 'Thriving not Surviving' with my School of Life colleagues Philippa Perry, John-Paul Flintoff, Roman Krznaric and Tom Chatfield. The TSOL gang have written a series of fabulous books which redefine the meaning of self-help. From the blurb:
In an age of moral and practical confusions, The School of Life offers a new take on the self-help book. For this special event we have invited four of the School of Life’s thinkers to share their views on how we can all survive living in the modern world. Philippa Perry takes on the subject of How to Stay Sane, John-Paul Flintoff tells us How to Change the World, Roman Krznaric advises on How to Find Fulfilling Work, and Tom Chatfield proffers advice on How to Thrive in the Digital Age. At the event, each of the speakers will give an introduction to their ideas and engage in debates with each other and you the audience about the subjects.
The books have been a huge success and were recently published in German translation. All four are very entertaining speakers and it promises to be a great event.

Straight after that I'll be doing a special event on A Box of Birds. I'll talking about how the novel came to be and its relations with the science of memory and consciousness. The event will be chaired by Professor Simon James of Durham's English Department. We'll be talking about the role of science in the novel, the rise and possible fate of the neuronovel, and what a properly scientific treatment of memory in the novel might look like. We'll also be talking about my new book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light: The new science of memory.

Those who have subscribed to A Box of Birds should be getting their copies before the end of the year (I've been working on the proofs this week). It's not too late to become a subscriber and get your name (or the name of someone you are gifting it to) in the back of the book.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Neuroscience and the novel: Strange Bedfellows

This is the fabulous poster that has been put together by the Strange Bedfellows team in advance of my talk there on Thursday. I'll be speaking particularly about my attempt, in A Box of Birds, to trace the limits of neuroscientific framings of human experience and behaviour on the pages of the novel and beyond.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Science and fiction: once more with links

A few weeks ago, during the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was asked to contribute to the Guardian's 'What I'm thinking about...' series which was capturing some of the debates and conversations going on in Charlotte Square Gardens. A few of the links didn't make it through into the published piece, so here it is again with all the links reinstated:

Whether it’s finding bosons or parking cars on Mars, science can give fictional characters a whole lot of different new things to think about. But can the influence ever work in the other direction—can scientists ever find inspiration in fiction? That’s a question that came up at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this weekend. In the first of a series of events funded by the Wellcome Trust, I was in conversation with the US novelist Ben Marcus, whose novel The Flame Alphabet thrillingly recasts language as a deadly toxin, forcing us to rethink its relations with private thought and public communication. One thing we talked about was how the sciences of human experience, including psychology and cognitive neuroscience, have to be interested in that experience from the inside. There’s no better way of getting at the subjectivity of an individual consciousness than through a skilful fictional narrative. Fiction can also be a laboratory for testing out different explanations of human behaviour. When Darwinism and psychoanalysis reshaped our conceptions of humanity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers were there as barometers of those new understandings. Neuroscience promises a similarly profound shift in how we make sense of ourselves, and we can look to writers to explore whether brain science will ultimately provide us with satisfactory accounts of who we are.

Memory is another area where the insights of writers can spark scientific enquiry. You could argue that all novels are at some level about memory, and writings on the topic are a rich source on the subjectivity of the experience. Autobiographical memory is defined as our memory for the events of our own lives, and the recent science of this topic forces us to rethink it in quite a radical way. Rather than recording events like a video camera, we reconstruct past events by integrating many different kinds of information, creating a kind of multimedia collage which can differ subtly from telling to retelling. In immersing myself in this topic, I didn’t only look at the work of scientists. Novelists have always been attuned to the vagaries of autobiographical memory, from Proust’s writings about the links between memory, sensation and emotion to A. S. Byatt’s delineation of subtle phenomenological distinctions between kinds of early memory. Looking further back, medieval writers turn out to have been remarkably prescient about memory’s recombinative, future-oriented function, while the understanding of narrative has been highlighted as a limiting factor on small children’s ability to do autobiographical memory. If we want a better understanding of how the brain tells stories about the past, it seems that we could do worse than read fiction.

This ‘reconstructive’ view of memory also raises questions about the genre of life writing. When we read a memoir, we are often asked to take the vividness of the memory as a guarantee of its veracity. In contrast, writers like Janice Galloway have been praised for acknowledging the narrative, storytelling nature of memory. At her event on Sunday, I had the chance to ask Galloway whether memoirists should do more to acknowledge the reconstructive nature of their art. From the writer’s point of view, she responded, there is no ‘should’ about it; each life-writer has to negotiate their own relationship with the past. Artful, emotionally charged narratives, like our own ordinary and precious memories, will always hold a distinctive kind of truth, whether or not they are literally accurate representations of what happened.

A note on some upcoming talks

I've got a busy run-up to Christmas talking about Pieces of Light, A Box of Birds and other things.

On Saturday 6 October I'll be at the Wigtown Book Festival talking about memory. It'll be my first time at this festival, and I'm looking forward to a variety of treats including a strand celebrating their famous starry skies, and some big names including Sara Maitland, Marina Warner, Jon Ronson and James Kelman. You can see the full programme here.

On Friday 12 and Saturday 13 October I'll be at the Institute of Philosophy in London talking about memory and narrative in a conference on narrative and self-understanding in psychiatric disorder. I'll be talking about some of the memory distortions that I wrote about in Pieces of Light.

On Thursday 18 October I'll be at the University of York talking about 'Neuroscience and the novel: Strange Bedfellows?' This talk will be part of the Strange Bedfellows programme exploring relations between creativity and criticism. I'll be talking about A Box of Birds and my experiences of trying to combine science and fiction-writing. There'll be a particular focus on my attempt, in A Box of Birds, to trace the limits of neuroscientific framings of human experience and behaviour on the pages of the novel and beyond.

On Wednesday 24 October I head to Berlin for the Experimental Entanglements in Cognitive Neuroscience workshop. My title is 'If thinking is dialogic, who's doing the talking?'

Saturday 27 October sees me back in Durham for the Durham Book Festival. I'll be hosting a School of Life event on 'Thriving not Surviving' with my School of Life colleagues Philippa Perry, John-Paul Flintoff, Roman Krznaric and Tom Chatfield. I'll then be doing a special event on A Box of Birds, talking about how the novel came to be and its relations with the science of memory and consciousness. The event will be chaired by Professor Simon James of Durham's English Department.

On Wednesday 31 October I'll be speaking at the Psychosis Special Interest Group at Durham University on the inner speech model of voice-hearing and auditory verbal hallucinations, as part of our Wellcome-funded 'Hearing the Voice' project.

On the weekend of 24 and 25 November, I'll be in Cheltenham participating in the Medicine Unboxed 2012 conference. The theme is 'Belief' and the speakers include Richard Holloway, Sebastian Faulks, Jo Shapcott and Bryan Appleyard. I'll be talking about A Box of Birds and offering some thoughts on neuromaterialism reductionism and the refuge of art.

Finally, I'll be in conversation with the novelist, poet and memoirist Blake Morrison at the University of London on Tuesday 27 November. Our theme will be 'Memoir and Memory', and the event is part of a series entitled 'Life Writing: borderlands between fact and fiction', organised by the Open University and University of London.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Box of Birds: update

The final edit of A Box of Birds is now complete. The production schedule means that those who supported the book (thank you!) should receive their copies before the end of the year.

There is still time to order the special edition and be listed as a subscriber.

There should be some cover art soon and I'll post it on this blog as soon as I can.

I'll be doing a special event around the book at the Durham Book Festival on Saturday 27 October. I'll be in conversation with Professor Simon James from the English Department at Durham, and will be talking about Pieces of Light as well.

In November I'll be talking about A Box of Birds at Medicine Unboxed 2012 in Cheltenham.

The trade edition of the novel will appear in May.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pieces Of Light: publication day

I began my last book with an interview. The subject was my three-year-old daughter, Athena, and I was asking her what she remembered about her babyhood. Unsurprisingly, she didn't have much to say for herself (apart from offering the detail that 'It were very sunny'). I was asking her to do something quite difficult: inviting her to travel back into her own past and relive moments of it from the inside. That's a tall order, cognitively speaking, and so it comes as no surprise that it takes children some time to master the skill.

That encounter with Athena's memory was one of the most interesting aspects of that project, and it promised a fertile topic for a new non-fiction book. In Pieces of Light: The new science of memory, I have tried to write about the science of autobiographical memory in a way that does justice to the human stories behind it. Our memories are constructions—fictions, of a sort, which nevertheless do a pretty good job of keeping us in touch with the events of our lives. From the first chapter:
I think that if we are really to unpick the mysteries of memory, we need to put the story back into the science. One of my aims in this book is to capture the first-person nature of memory, the rememberer’s capacity to reinhabit the recalled moment and experience it again from the inside. The great memory scientist Endel Tulving called this quality of memory ‘autonoetic consciousness’, and explaining it is one of the biggest challenges for memory researchers. The scientific need for replicable experimental findings has meant that the personal, subjective quality of memory has often been ignored, although this tendency has begun to be redressed in recent years, with a new movement towards exploring the qualitative and the narrative. Memory researchers now spend more time getting to know their participants’ individual stories, whether they concern the beguiling confabulations spun by those whose memory systems have failed them, or the sensually rich ‘first memories’ produced when people are interviewed about their very early childhoods. I want to do the same thing, letting the stories speak for themselves in illustrating the fragile and complex truths of memory.
Pieces of Light is the story of some of those stories. I talk to the very young and the very old, individuals who are still, in middle age, arguing over childhood memories with other members of their family, and people whose ability to remember has been changed by trauma and brain damage. I look at what we can learn about memory by getting lost in space as well as in time, uncover the links between memory and imagination, and find out how a return to a familiar place can unlock memories of people who are lost. It's been a fascinating journey for me, and I'd love to know what you think of the book that has resulted.

Pieces of Light is published today in the UK by Profile Books. It will be published in the US by HarperCollins in March 2013, and a Spanish translation is already in progress. There have been a couple of early reviews: this one in Nature and this in New Scientist. I was also lucky enough to get some wonderful pre-publication quotes from Daniel Schacter, Elizabeth Loftus, Douwe Draaisma, Jonah Lehrer and David Eagleman.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How Stephen Fry made me do it

As I get closer to the finishing line with A Box Of Birds, I thought I'd tell the story of how I got my first fiction published.

I'd never had any success with getting stories into print. I was finishing off my PhD at Cambridge, and I'd had a poem accepted in the May Anthologies the previous year. The guest editor had been Seamus Heaney, so you can imagine what a trip that had sent me on. That year I had been on the student-run selection committee (no advantage since we—quite properly—weren't allowed to vote for ourselves). We felt that we were doing something important with some pieces of writing that showed huge promise, and that we might even be helping to launch some careers.

For the next year's prose anthology, Stephen Fry agreed to be the guest editor. I sent in my submission, waited, and eventually heard that it had been shortlisted by the selection committee. The next step was for the shortlisted entries to be posted off to Stephen, who would read them through and make his selection.  

I didn't feel particularly hopeful. I'd had lots of rejections from literary magazines, and I'd come to assume that people just didn't get what I was trying to do (it's the excuse I still make to myself). Also, I was a Natural Scientist, and everyone else was studying literature and had read everything and could deconstruct texts very cleverly. They knew about Jane Austen. I knew about language development in children. It didn't seem to be a great platform for an assault on the literary world. 

I got lucky, however. Stephen picked twelve stories and one of them was mine. 

It was called 'A Photograph', and it was about adolescent sex and a tribute band called The New South Wales Police. I was very young, in my early twenties. In his foreword to the collection, Stephen wrote: 
You will not find bombast, precocity, self-indulgence or self-importance here. You will find stories that are magnetically readable, memorable and moving. 
When I look at those stories now, particularly my own, I feel that Stephen was being kind. A couple of days before I heard that 'A Photograph' had been accepted, I wondered in my diary whether I was angry enough to be a writer. 'I'm playing,' I wrote. 'I'm feigning. I have this little uninteresting life and, worse, this little uninteresting mind. I shouldn't be bothering.'

Actually, when I read back through my diary from that time, I can see that I was pretty angry, but about the wrong things. I was angry at people for not responding to submissions, for apparently not being interested in fiction that took risks and tried to go somewhere new. I was angry, but not in the right way. I wasn't yet able to channel that deep sense of outrage that propels a writer—to persuade my readers that there was something important that needed saying, and that I was the person to say it. When my dad died, three years later, I had plenty to be angry about. I think my writing changed then. I haven't really continued with short stories, although I have huge respect and admiration for the form. I've been drawn to the bigger canvas of the novel, the space it gives you to master a perspective and send lives into collision with each other.

I was writing a novel back then—my first—and struggling with it. (It was never published.) There were things I was supposed to be doing: applying for fellowships, securing an academic job, and joining the race to become a professor before the age of forty (or whatever other daft self-imposed goals seemed to matter to giddy young academics). I wasn't just losing the pace: I was turning on my heels and sprinting off in the wrong direction.

It was 1994. Looking back, I feel I could have saved myself so much pain. Nothing's going to happen any time soon, I would have told myself. Forget your daily word count. Forget the agents and those hopeful submissions. Wait. Enjoy it for what it is. Master your craft. And, in twenty years' time, you might have something to show for it. 

In later years, the May Anthologies (now the Mays) went on to discover a few literary names, most famously Zadie Smith. Stephen didn't do too badly either. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Crowd-funding: the endgame

A Box of Birds is now 78% funded. Hundreds of people have played a part already in helping me to make this book happen, and now we’re into the final phase.

I still need around a hundred more supporters. Please pass the message on to your friends, use Twitter and Facebook and generally spread the word. You can see who has already pledged by going here.

This blog post has a summary of the publicity I’ve been doing and details of some forthcoming events. I've answered some questions about the crowd-funding process here.

I've been working on this novel for more than a decade, and so you'll understand why I'm keen for it to see the light of day. I’ve loved every moment of the writing process, and I can’t think of any better way I could have spent the time. I hope that that joy comes across in the writing. The first three chapters have already been published in my Unbound shed, but I’ve put them together in a handy .pdf if you haven’t yet had a look.

Some of my Unbound stablemates have been writing about what crowd-funding means to them. Katy Brand explains why she chose Unbound over traditional publishers, and Stevyn Colgan has been reflecting on his own experience of crowd-funding his new book.

Things happen to Unbound books. Tibor Fischer published his new collection with them and it was recently chosen for the Fiction Uncovered promotion. Unbound books can get noticed and win prizes. Several people told me that crowd-funding a literary thriller was an ambitious thing to be doing. It's taken some work, but it's happening.

Some may feel that £20 is a lot to pay for a book, and we’re certainly used to paying less online. Bear in mind, though, that the author pays for those sensational online discounts, by losing up to 60% of their already modest percentage. Unbound’s model is much fairer for the author, with a basic 50% profit share with the publisher. And you are investing in a writer's talent and ideas, by supporting a book that would otherwise not see the light of day.

Please help me to cross the finishing line. I’ve set out some ideas for what you can do to help in this blog post. Whilst you’re at it, have a look at some of the other wonderful books on offer. Unbound books make great presents, but they also make great books happen.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Lorenzo Circuit: fact or fiction?

DTI image
DTI image (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've had a lot of fun writing A Box Of Birds, but nothing has given me quite as much pleasure as making up this kind of thing:
I touch the remote. Another hologrammic brain ghosts up in front of our eyes, its shapes made perfect by countless superimposed iterations. Running through it, like the root system of some supernatural orchid, is the vermilion net of the Lorenzo Circuit. I’m always stunned by it, humbled and threatened by its beauty, by the ambition of the thing as much as anything. It leaves nothing out: the control systems of the frontal lobe, the emotion circuits of the limbic system, all the linked factories of meaning that patch the human cortex. That swirl of self on the screen shows me a dream of connectedness, challenges me to be more whole than I am.
This is an extract from Chapter One (which can be read in its entirety here). The Lorenzo Circuit is (in my protagonist Yvonne's words) 'the deep root-system of the self... the basis of memory, emotion and consciousness in the human brain'. It is fictional, but I also think it is plausible. Much of the plot of A Box Of Birds hangs on the race to map its secrets.

Here's the context. One of the most exciting discoveries in the recent neuroscience of memory has been the finding that there is a core network that underlies capacities as diverse as autobiographical memory, simulating future events, thinking about the mental states of others, and daydreaming. Neuroimaging studies have shown that similar cortical areas activate when people are doing these tasks, and evidence from brain damage (such as studies that have looked at future-oriented thinking in people with amnesia) has confirmed the neural overlap.

I wanted to take this idea of a core system underlying memory and run with it as far as I could. In the novel, I imagine how a team of researchers might become obsessed with mapping such a circuit, using the techniques of connectomics such as diffusion MRI. Yvonne's world is technologically more advanced than ours—she has access to portable neuroimaging devices, for example, such as those on view in the first chapter. But the Lorenzo Circuit is plausible in the context of our own science, particularly given the breakthroughs in connectomics and neuroimaging that have been making the news in recent months.

If you knew enough about this fictional circuit, my characters reason, you could start to understand how memory and emotion come together in creating a conscious self. When Gareth (Yvonne's unstable student) gets hold of this information, it gives a new focus to his scheme to augment memory artificially. As the truth emerges about the secret experiments that are going on at the headquarters of the rival biotech, Sansom, the mapping of the Lorenzo Circuit takes on an entirely new urgency. And that's where the story really hots up.

(If you like the sound of this, you can help to make the book happen by going here.)

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Extraordinary 75% giveaway!

At some point in the next hours/days/weeks A Box Of Birds will reach 75% of its funding target. To celebrate, all new subscribers (from now until the 75% mark is reached) will be entered into a draw for a free signed copy of one of my books. Here's how it works: 

1. Subscribers to the book are listed here. I'll be keeping an eye on this list and noting who subscribes between now and the point when 75% is reached. 

2. The names will go into a hat, and I'll ask a small, unpaid research assistant to choose one name at random. 

3. I'll invite that subscriber to choose a book and an inscription. You can win a copy of any available edition of any of my books, including translations, and I will sign it and send it anywhere in the world. That includes a first edition of my previous novel, The Auctioneer, and my new non-fiction book, Pieces of Light. (It doesn't include my academic books which are a. expensive and b. boring.)

That's all. The draw is open now and it closes when the book hits 75%. Start pledging!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Meades on memory and place

I had the pleasure yesterday of doing my first reading from Pieces of Light at the Hay Festival. The event, chaired by John Mitchinson and Unbound, put me together with the legendary Jonathan Meades, whose new book Museum Without Walls is a funny and incisive collection of writings on architecture, places and the people who inhabit them. Looking dapper and ever so slightly decadent in his overcoat and silk scarf (Hay was rather chilly this year), Jonathan read out a hilarious demolition of the aesthetics of the Olympic site, which included one of the longest and funniest lists you will ever read in the pages of a book.

I read an extract from the 'Walking at Goldhanger' chapter of Pieces of Light, which describes a walk I took along the Essex coastline in search of memories of my Dad. One of my interests in this book is in how we negotiate memories of people who are no longer here—with 'negotiate' being the operative word. I talked about how memory functions as a kind of bricolage, a putting-together from 'scrounged materials intended for other purposes', to use Meades' words. We reconstruct the past by putting together different kinds of information—sensory, perceptual, factual, semantic—and creating the collage in different ways each time we are called upon to remember. 

There were some great comments from the floor, including one accusation that I was being 'intellectually arrogant' by claiming authoritative knowledge about how the questioner's own memory worked. I responded by saying that I wasn't just reporting the findings of a couple of psychological surveys, but rather summing up decades of careful research by outstanding scientists who have used a range of different methods. If it is intellectually arrogant to aim for a robust, phenomenologically sensitive science of human experience (which challenges the myths of memory's function and rejects a simplistic reliance on introspection and 'just-knowing'), then I will happily accept the charge. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's only a fiver

To celebrate their first birthday, those lovely people at Unbound are offering a £5 voucher towards a pledge on any of their books. That means you can help A Box of Birds to be published for only a fiver (the minimum pledge is £10). That's the price of a London pint (I think; I never carry cash in London). What you'll be doing is helping me with a book I've been working on for more than a decade, and which now finally has a chance to see the light of day.

If you have any queries about how the process works, this blog post will help. If you'd like to read a summary of the conversations that have been going on around the book (including coverage in Wired, the Telegraph, the Independent and BBC Radio 4), please read this. You can also read what some wonderful writers have been saying about the book.

If you've already pledged, thank you (though please feel free to pledge again as a gift). If you haven't subscribed yet, now is your chance. The £5 voucher is available to anyone, but only until 12 June. All the details are here.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Box of Birds: update

A Box of Birds is now 60% funded. Lots of people have pledged support to make this book happen, but there is still a way to go. Here are some things you can do to help.

1. Spread the word. I have been doing a lot of publicity around the book, and there are plenty of ways of getting into the conversation. I’ve tweeted about it a lot, and my Facebook page also has links for easy sharing.

I followed up my interview with Jonah Lehrer in a piece for Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’, which you can listen to again here. The book has had a second pre-publication quote from the acclaimed novelist Sara Maitland, which you can read here.

I have written about the Unbound crowd-funding process here, and answered some common questions about the process works. I wrote about the challenges of combining being a scientist and a writer in this blog post for the Independent. I have also written a blog post specifically about how neuroscience explains motivations, and how novelists can make use of that knowledge.

I was interviewed about the book for the magazine Notes from the Underground. The book was also mentioned in this piece in the Daily Telegraph.

I’ll be doing an event at the Hay Festival on Tuesday 5 June. Looking further ahead, I’ll be in conversation about fiction and science with the American writer Ben Marcus at the Edinburgh festival on 11 August, and I’ll speaking about the book at Medicine Unboxed: Belief in Cheltenham in November.

2. Persuade a friend. If everybody who has pledged for the book could persuade one more person, I would quickly reach the target. You can find out who has already pledged support by going here. For those who want to try before they buy, the first chapter of the book is free to read at the pledge page, and the second chapter has just been published too. The third chapter is posted in the Shed, to which only subscribers have access.

3. Pledge again. Unbound make beautiful books which are perfect gifts. This gift is even more special because you can put the recipient’s name in the back of the book. Supporters’ names will appear in every subsequent edition, including the trade edition which will be published by Faber next year (if the Unbound edition reaches its target) and any foreign editions and translations. Remember that the Unbound edition will appear some time before the Faber one, so those who subscribe now get an exclusive preview.

It’s easy to change the name that appears in the back of the book. Simply go into the Shed (as a subscriber you have access) and press the button at the right.

Thanks for your support. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How do I pledge?

This crowd-funding business is new territory for all of us, so I thought I'd put together a few FAQs to help you decide.

This is one of those internet scams, isn't it? Not at all. The people behind Unbound are highly respected in the literary and media worlds. They have a sound business model and have already brought established writers like Terry Jones and Tibor Fischer into print, with Kate Mosse and Jonathan Meades set to follow soon. They make lovely books and publicise them well, and I want mine to be one of them.

What are the risks, then? There aren't any. You either get a beautiful book (and help a writer get back into doing what he loves most) or, if the project isn't funded, you get a full refund.

Why are you self-publishing? I'm not. If I were self-publishing I would be paying for my book to be printed. (Here's some more on how the Unbound model differs.) There are many reasons for taking the subscription-funding route, and one is that it gives me a chance to talk about why the book is important before it is actually published. (I've been doing that here and here.) There's nothing particularly new in the subscription-funding model; it was big in the eighteenth century and Unbound are simply reviving it for the modern era.

What's this about getting your name in the back of the book? When you pledge for a book, your name is recorded and entered into the subscription list, which will then be printed in the back of every edition that appears.

So can I change the name to make it a gift? Certainly. Once you have pledged, there's a button on the right which allows you to change the name in the back of the book. Change this to the name of the gift recipient, and their name will be printed in the back of every edition of the novel. How's that for literary immortality?

Am I going to get loads of junk mail? No. You have to register with an email address so that Unbound know who you are. They send a weekly newsletter, but you can easily opt out of that. That's all.

It's OK, I'll just wait for the paperback. Er, no. There will be no paperback unless the project is funded. Help me to cross the finishing line and there will be a subsequent trade edition in partnership with Faber (due next year), with the potential for foreign editions and translations. Once the book is published by Unbound (in August, if I get funded on schedule), it will automatically be eligible for prizes and various other good things. But for that to happen, I need your support. You can do everything you need to do here. Thanks so much.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The pull of the story

A few weeks ago I went to London to film the pitch for my novel, A Box of Birds. This will be my first novel for some time (my debut, The Auctioneer, was published way back in 1999), and so it was a big moment for me. I was meeting John Mitchinson, the publisher of Unbound, to talk to him about the themes of the book. We met at Paramount, the restaurant at the top of Centre Point in Soho. The pitch was filmed (by the wonderful and multitalented Laura Kidd) against the extraordinary backdrop of London viewed from 33 floors up. You can see the results here.

It was a wide-ranging, enlivening conversation, as all my chats with John are. I got the chance to explain how A Box of Birds is my way of taking on a fundamental question: how we should live our lives, if we accept (as modern neuroscience asks us to) that we are no more than complex systems of connections. With Yvonne, I wanted to write the story of the first materialist in fiction. That statement probably seems over-bold and certainly needs some qualification, as there are plenty of other novels that touch on themes of neuroscientific materialism. But I don’t think novelists have gone far enough in exploring the implications of this philosophy for their fictional characters. I’ve written more about this debate here, and there’ll be lots more in the weeks to come. If the book is funded, it will be published in the autumn.

In a way, the most difficult question was the last one. ‘What makes you keep doing it?’ John asked me. At an emotional level, I have no doubt about the answer, but it’s hard to put it into words. I have always written fiction—I had a complete draft of a novel at the age of nine—and it’s not too melodramatic to say that I have dedicated my life to it. In one sense it’s the most natural thing in the world for me to do. I suspect that what John was really asking was: What makes you keep doing it, when you could be doing other things? I have a part-time career as an academic, after all: why isn’t that enough?

If I knew the answer to that, I would have solved a basic riddle about human creativity. What makes us want to tell stories? What do the counterfactuals of fiction give us that the realities of science don’t?

There is much to say on this topic, but here's one idea to start with. Looking for the commonalities between science and writing is not a new endeavour, and people before me have considered this relationship very fruitfully. (Here's one great example, and an equally interesting response.) When I'm doing science, I'm trying to go from the specificities of data to theories and principles that can apply more generally. Writers do that too. They look for the particular that can speak to the universal, the part that can stand for the whole.

In some ways, though, fiction has more to do with engineering. When you write a novel, you are building a model and then putting it in a wind tunnel. You're looking to see how the stresses of events impact upon your characters: how they deform them, and draw out their resiliences. You always start with a character, I think, a character in a situation... and then you put your model down on the bench and see how it runs. For me, with this book, that was about saying 'What if you put a materialist into a story? How would she behave when stuff started to happen? How would her view of the world, and of herself, change?' I honestly don't think we can understand the true meaning of neuroscience from within the discipline. We have to look at how it functions in the real world, how it changes our understanding.

So that's one reason why I do fiction alongside science. In the end, I'm not going to be able to give a definitive answer to the question that John asked me, except to the extent of knowing what these things mean to me personally. That’s the bit that’s hard to put into words, and it’s what I tried to explain to John. I’m less of a person when I’m not writing fiction. Without it, I just don't understand things so well. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Memory Week

Happy 2012 to everyone. This week is Memory Week at the Guardian and Observer, and I've had great fun being involved.

The main event has been an online memory experiment designed by Jon Simons and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge. This is already looking like it could become the biggest memory experiment ever conducted, so please join in. You can hear me talking about the study on BBC Tees (at around 1:50 on this link). You can also read the press release here. Jon's latest blog post gives some more background to the study.

On Wednesday, I did a live Q&A on memory on the Guardian's website (1-2pm). Comments are now closed but I hope to keep the conversation going on Twitter.

Next Saturday, the Guardian will be publishing a free guide called 'Make the Most of Your Memory'. On Sunday, the Observer will be publishing another free guide incorporating memory tests and exercises. The supplements will also be available online.