Adam tends to the garden. He works among the flowers where the bees dance. Around his ankles, and up his legs, and across his shoulders coils the snake, its tongue flickering in his ear…
Oliver K. Langmead, Birds of Paradise
Behind Oliver’s face is another garden, of the zoom background variety, filled to the brim with blooming digital flowers. I am thankful for that part of the online book launch experience, at least. A real garden would make my allergies act up and that would have been embarrassing. Oliver is wearing a pink velvet suit jacket, a shirt with no collar and – allegedly – matching pink velvet trousers. Rob Maslen and Colin Herd, equally dressed up although neither of them dared to go down the velvet path, have joined him. The event starts, as is traditional, with a reading.
Unlike Rob Maslen, and unlike Oliver’s MLitt cohort, the Phoenixes, I’d never heard him read any of Birds of Paradise before today, separated as we were by a zoom connection and pretty much all of Glasgow. However, prior to reading my ARC of this book (thank you Netgalley, I promise the five stars is an honest rating and not just because I know the author), my only experiences with Langmeadian writing were live readings: a sparkle of his next novel, Glitterati, at a Fantasy Reading Party at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, a verse or two of his epic poem Calypso in a PhD cohort meeting back when we were still able to exist in the same room with each other. Birds of Paradise surprised me with its emotion, and by its ability to evoke emotions in me. There was a scene in Birds of Paradise that made me cry and I will freely admit that I did not expect Oliver Langmead to ever make me cry.
That is not a criticism of his other writing in any way. But my opinion of it has previously been very influenced by Oliver’s live readings, infused with chaotic, high voltage energy and the slight delight in pretentiousness that he and I share (although he wears it better than me, the bastard). Birds of Paradise is very like and yet completely unlike anything I was expecting. It is a quiet book, meditative and slow-paced, and even its moments of extravagant beauty or unflinching violence (both of which can be found within its pages) were alike cushioned by the hushed tones of Adam’s voice, his heavy-shadowed presence in every single one of Oliver’s words.
Adam, as I’m sure I will not be the last to say, is a character in the tradition of Neil Gaiman’s Shadow, from American Gods. Closed off both from himself and the reader, unreliable in a way that is sombre rather than mischievous, a gentle giant carrying the world on his shoulders. I think the comparison with Gaiman’s Shadow leaves Langmead the winner. His Adam is real and relatable in a way that Shadow isn’t always, and his journey is less flashy but runs deeper. Hearing Oliver read the prologue and first few pages of his book’s first chapter was completely at odds with what I remembered from the other times I’ve heard him read. Rather than manic and energetic he was quiet, almost still, his voice steady. I have to imagine that everyone experienced this the same way I did, in a quiet room, listening to a description of the world’s first gardener.
After the reading Rob and Oliver discussed not only Birds of Paradise, but also Oliver’s previous and upcoming works: Dark Star and Metronome, his two published books, as well as his upcoming Glitterati and his PhD poem Calypso. But Adam kept creeping into the conversations like a vine, and Oliver discussed the seeds of his creation (a short story about a soldier wandering the desert rather than Eden’s clay and the breath of God) and what drew him to the character (“I like characters who are very rich and who give me a lot to work with and there’s nothing richer than a long life… Adam is interesting because he’s human”). Birds of Paradise seems to be a look into Oliver’s creative process in general, as he is constantly “trying to find fragments of Eden in the most unexpected places” as Rob put it, and Oliver agreed. He’s writing best, he claimed, when he’s miserable, finding in that emotion the need to make something beautiful, something gorgeous.
I’ve somehow gone on for almost 800 words without really talking about the event as a whole. Like most of the Creative Conversations I’ve been to it was delightful. It gave Oliver the space he needed to talk about his work in his own words, as well as Rob Maslen, who clearly loves Oliver’s work, to be his conversation partner. Other than the book itself, the two talked about the Fantasy MLitt programme, the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, the University of Glasgow, and the creative process in general. In better times, this conversation would be taking place in the chapel, and I would not be sitting in my comfortable armchair but instead somewhere near the back, craning my neck to look. Despite how comfortable my room is now, I miss the live experience. Hopefully we’ll be back next year to talk about Glitterati. I look forward to being able to see everyone’s trousers then. Until then, you can watch the event for yourselves here.
Marita Arvaniti, MLitt Fantasy graduate, PhD student at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, University of Glasgow
PS. In a question I very generously asked, Oliver denied basing the character of Magpie on an idealised vision of himself (albeit with worse teeth). I am still not convinced.