Carla Brochton wrote fantasy. Real fantasy.
No, not real, I know fantasy isn’t real. But her Doomlords of Islayana series had been a sensation and was quickly snapped up for TV by one of those streaming networks. Pompous mock-medieval fantasy with lots of sex, nudity, torture, 21st century swearing and splattering innards always goes down well with the box-set demographic. The worse it is, the better, so to speak.
As you’ve probably already guessed, it’s not my taste at all. No fantasy is. At the time I’m speaking of, I was on my eighth Wodehousian comic novel set in contemporary Glasgow and they are very different from that sort of thing, as you’ll see if any of them is ever published. But even I had to admit that Carla Brochton was a big name. And as chair of Eastermilk Writers’ and Book Group it was my responsibility to find speakers. Ms Brochton lived in Glasgow and was known to be supportive of local community groups, to the occasional exasperation of her Hollywood ‘people’.
The excitement was palpable when she agreed to give a short talk to the group. Her commitment to supporting local people was clear; ‘No fee necessary,’ her email had said. Whoever heard of an author turning down money? I wouldn’t, if anyone ever offered me any.
She turned out to be a jolly little woman, pear-shaped and soft and cardigany with a round puff of curly hair like grannies used to always have, only hers was still nutty brown, not grey. You’d take her for a writer of romantic fiction, or someone who worked in a charity shop, rather than someone famous for violent dark fantasy.
About forty people turned up on the night. We’d opened up the meeting to the wider public given the profile of our speaker. If you suspected that the front row awaited the chance to interrogate Ms Brochton with an eager stretching out of the neck, like Creation in that Bible verse, you’d be dead right. The enthusiasts were all there. I’ll get to them in a minute.
Carla Brochton didn’t speak for long, as agreed; she knew from experience that the fantasy-heads could go on all night asking questions, only half-listening to the answers, before thrusting their hands again to ask more. She spoke amusingly and entertainingly for half an hour. I was pleased to hear, or at least to infer, that she recognized fantasy fiction, and especially fantasy TV, as being a bit silly, but these nuances flew right over the heads of the zealots. When she finished, the applause erupted and echoed off the shinily polished vinyl floor and shuttlecock-indented ceiling of Eastermilk Baptist Church Hall.
And so it was time for the inquisition.
We’d laid out the chairs in ten rows of six, with an aisle up the middle, as if we were running a wedding and not an author visit. The six who occupied the front row were exactly those I expected, while one or two of those in the second row craned forward so far they sometimes seemed to be almost in the laps of those in front.
Alvin Blackgate was a thin thirty-something with a mop of greying hair. He worked in IT and always wore skinny jeans and an AC/DC t-shirt. I hoped he’d at least ask an informed question, because turgid fantasy was his field, albeit unpublished. Instead he asked, ‘Carla, where dae ye get yer ideas from?’ There was an impressive bit of synchronized eye-rolling which, sitting at the table with Carla, I was able to appreciate more than most. Carla gave a standard answer with some grace and humility. ‘And I often start with the character; many of the Islayana characters are based on real people I’ve encountered.’
‘You base fantasy characters on real people?’ asked Alvin.
‘Of course. If fantasy is to convince, your characters must be real, the sort that your readers can identify with or at least recognize.’ Alvin looked doubtful, but already I could see Claudia Homewell twisting in her seat and surging her hand ever higher, like a Primary Two kid who knows the answer to a question.
She’s about the same age as Carla but thin and wiry, with straw-hair dyed blonde and a complexion wizened by sunlight and wacky cigarettes. She went to Cambridge, talks with a fruitily posh accent and moved up to Scotland after a visit when she ‘simply fell in love’ with a little cottage on the green belt outside town. She didn’t reckon with our council who then waved through a shopping mall on the site and she was compulsorily purchased into a Victorian villa in the nicer part of Eastermilk. ‘Carla, what is your next project going to be?’ she asked, without waiting for me to point to her.
‘Ah, I’m glad you asked me that. I’m actually going to write a contemporary novel, about the relationships and lives of a group of people in modern-day Britain.’
‘Not fantasy?’ said Alvin, looking like the bottom had dropped out of something.
‘Will you base your human characters on real life goblins and dragons you’ve met?’ said Jake Nalkem, an angry sixty-something in faded jeans and a t-shirt with a socialist slogan.
Before Jake had butted in, I’d noticed Jean Banesee timidly trying to attract attention. I indicated mutely that I’d get back to her.
‘I sense that you have issues with fantasy,’ said Carla. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.’
‘I didnae give it. Whit dae these novels do tae promote social justice and bring the rich and the powerful tae book?’
‘Well, I’m not sure everyone would agree that that is the job of literature, or even if it is, whether it’s capable of doing so…’
And so they went on, and on, and Claudia came in speaking about beauty and nature and Jake scoffed and Alvin argued that fantasy shouldn’t have any reality in it because reality was rubbish and all the while Jean, a quiet, elderly lady who’d actually, unlike most of us, had work published (some romantic stories in the Peoples’ Friend), tried to say something but was always interrupted or ignored.
And soon it was all over. I thanked Carla, gave her the bouquet we’d kept hidden, and watched as the audience drifted away, except for Alvin and Jake who sullenly vaped at the front door, looking over their shoulders at Carla. But the fantasy author was a pro, all right. She went round us all, especially the frustrated writers, thanking us for coming and asking our names. She spent some time with Jean and even nonplussed Alvin and Jake by entering their cloud of vape fumes and glad-handing them with fervor.
Eventually, Carla’s taxi arrived and we waved goodbye. There was just Jean and me left. ‘What a nice lady,’ said Jean.
‘I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to speak,’ I said. ‘It was hard with that crowd acting as normal.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, Dougie. I had such a nice wee chat with her afterwards.’
Two years later I had just completed Heidbanger Erchie Gets in a Pickle, my tenth unpublished Glaswegian Wodehousian novel. Alvin had taken to wearing Metallica t-shirts and was still unpublished. Claudia hadn’t had anything published either and had moved back to England while Jake was also still unpublished and, as you’d expect, no less angry. Jean, on the other hand, had had a romantic novel accepted for publication. Carla Brochton, so the news had told us, had moved reluctantly to Hollywood in order to work more closely with the Doomlords of Islayana scriptwriters. Otherwise, little had changed.
And then one Saturday morning, as I typed the first page of Daft Jamie Knows His Onions, I heard a clunk at the front door. The post had arrived, and by the sound of it there was something substantial. I ambled downstairs. There was only the one item; a small jiffy bag the size, shape and weight of a hardback novel. Inside was, imagine my astonishment, a hardback novel; The Writers’ Group by Carla Brochton.
I turned to the blurb on the back.
In her first contemporary novel, fantasy legend (The Annotated Chronicles of the Doomlords of Islayana) Carla Brochton delivers a deliciously wicked and witty tale about the members of a local Glasgow literary society; Andrew, the chairman, a shy, awkward and socially inept Wodehouse fan; Claudia, the sex-crazed Londoner; Alvin, the stereotypical heavy metal-loving sci-fi and fantasy enthusiast; Jake, the socialist revolutionary with personal hygiene problems. Then, just as it seems things can’t get any more chaotic (or funny), elements of their chosen genres start to mysteriously weave their way into the group. Claudia and her lover are torn asunder by suspicion and jealousy as in a chick-lit opus. Andrew experiences a series of slapstick pratfalls when circumstances require that he impersonate the headmaster of a local school; while Jake and Alvin are menaced in their turn by a spectral army of Red Guards and a ferocious fire-dragon.
It’s not Islayana, but in this new, believable world just like ours, nothing is what it seems!
My mobile pealed; I said ‘Hello?’
‘Where the hell did that old bag get the idea that I don’t wash properly?’
‘Sorry, Alvin, I could as easily ask, where did she get the idea that I was inadequate?’
‘We’ve all got that idea, Andrew.’
I spent the rest of the day fielding phone calls and reading The Book Group. Carla had been fair, at least. She’d taken the mickey out of us all equally. And then I noticed, there was no Jean. She hadn’t been portrayed at all. I realized this just at the point where my own character had been arrested for stealing a policeman’s helmet on Boat Race night.
I waited in the Baptist Church Hall alone, having arrived long before the rest of the members for that week’s meeting. I supposed that when the word got round we’d at least gain some new members from the publicity. I wondered if Jean would be here tonight and remembered that she was our only author with a book deal and the only one who’d been spared Carla Brochton’s caricaturing.
I wondered if unpublished writers were doomed to be little more than characters in someone else’s novel. But I didn’t wonder long, because the door banged and the members started clattering in and very few of them were happy.
David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of nonfiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking (i.e., hiking), visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly (i.e. TV), and supporting his hometown football (i.e., soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.
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