Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Unthology: first review and launch party

The first review of Unthology 7 comes from Valerie O'Riordan at Bookmunch, famously strict in their considerations. Unthology's USP is that it's a platform for a wide range of writing styles and genres, which, as I've said before, is a hugely important provision in a literary marketplace crowded with thematic publications and stylistically partisan editors which can straitjacket authors and often leaves little room for certain types of writing. As Valerie points out, however, with characteristic frankness, it's unlikely that every story in a diverse anthology will appeal to every reader, and so inevitably she was going to like some of the stories more than others. I'm lucky that my story, 'Looking for the Castle', is one of those she likes, and which she says 'manages to evoke the confused bewilderment of returning to one’s childhood town, and the weird task of grappling with the altered scale of the geography and the unexpected slippages of memory, without ever edging into melancholia; her story is also notable for its refreshing economy – nothing’s over-explained here.'

Two days now to the launch party in the Library Restaurant in Norwich - I'm very much looking forward to it!


Monday, June 22, 2015

Ruminating and germinating


While I've been pondering my next project and at times being unable even to get to my desk due to the roofing work, I've been doing a bit of proper gardening, ie sowing seeds and watching them grow, something I've rarely had the time to do in my life but which my Welsh grandfather did every year. Of course, he grew from seed enough flowers and vegetables to fill a whole big garden, and produced enough vegetables to feed a family most of the year round, and my efforts have been decidedly punier (I don't have a greenhouse, for a start), but I'm finding it very satisfying, and a kind of physical parallel to the creative germination and growth going on in my head.

I started in an even smaller way last year with cultivated primroses, which flowered this year. (Since I took the photos they've suffered a bit with the scaffolders stomping over the bed I put them in, and you can see in the second picture that the slugs were already having a go!)





The plants I'm most proud of this year are the hollyhocks above, which I've grown from the seeds of the one hollyhock I already have in my garden. (The slugs always get the ones that come up in the ground as soon as they appear, so I gathered the seeds last autumn and started them off in a cold frame in the spring.) They're much bigger now and I've already put them in the ground. They won't flower this year but next, I believe, and I'm excited to see how they turn out then, if I can get them to survive the winter and the slugs: the parent plant had pink double flowers, but of course you never know what plants the flowers were pollinated with, so they could turn out anyhow - the way that one of my sons has quite the opposite colouring to me: dark curly hair and brown eyes! The gardening books always tell you to buy new seeds, so you can be sure of the outcome, but I much prefer this mixup pot-luck thing, which is why I love the mad variable columbines in my garden (below) that seed themselves profusely (they're resistant to slugs), and which feels more to me like the creative process of writing, where the words and sentences can take you to scenarios and notions you had never expected.







In a similar way, I'm growing some Oriental poppies, also from the one already in my garden - which is perhaps just as well, as when the scaffolders dismantled the scaffolding they plonked a huge barrel right on top of it, which they proceeded to throw heavy metal joints into from high up, and I don't think the plant has survived.





Having got the appetite for it all, I did go and buy some seeds. I've always longed for a country-cottage style garden like my grandfather had, so I took a walk up to the garden centre and came back with packets of seeds of sweet pea, larkspur and garden poppies, and even some sage. The sweet peas are now halfway up the wall, and the rest are ready for potting on or putting in the ground. They just need to survive my being so busy at the moment with literary events away from the garden...

Oh, and I can't resist showing you one of the tulips that came up after my gruelling two afternoons planting bulbs last autumn:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cold but eventful

I'm still not getting much writing done, not on the page or the laptop anyway. The roof is finished at long last - I no longer feel as if I have people clonking about all over my scalp! - but I'm dashing about at the moment between cities and the countryside: all very exciting and stimulating when you spend most of your time at a desk, and of course, all grist to the mill while everything's churning over subconsciously.

Last weekend I was in London and spent a really lovely afternoon at a reception to celebrate the life and work of the Maigret novelist Georges Simenon. I hadn't read him before but spent the days beforehand making up the lack and becoming fascinated - by both the writing and the life: Maigret wrote almost 400 novels as well as short stories, at one point being contracted to produce a novel a month, yet the Maigrets are not by any means pulp fiction: written in a plain, economical prose, they're atmospheric with an important psychological dimension, and his romans durs, his 'hard novels', which I haven't tackled yet, are reported to be superior. As part of a resurgence of interest in Simenon, Penguin, publishers of Maigret since the fifties, are in the process of publishing new translations of every single one of his novels. I blogged about it all on Fictionbitch here.

In all of the Maigret novels I read, the weather was an important aspect of the atmosphere - hard frost, or incessant rain - so it seemed entirely appropriate that the weather was bitter, as it so often has been this June. Optimistically stepping out in a linen dress and jacket last Saturday morning in Manchester, since London was forecast to be warm, I encountered a driving cold rain and rushed back for a cardi to get me to balmy London, where I'd surely be taking it off. Some hope - I was freezing the whole weekend, and had to borrow a woollen coat from my host!

It seems that it's been warmer in London since, but it's stayed cold up north and in North Wales where John and I were by Thursday, so once again the weather seemed appropriate when American debut novelist and literary sensation Rebecca Dinerstein came to Caernarfon on her British book tour to read in the lovely Palas Print Bookshop garden from The Sunlit Night, her novel set in chilly north Norway. Although a new novelist, Rebecca is an expert and very charming performer (she's also an award-winning poet), and the sections she read were engaging and very well written. And there was amazing food thematically connected with the book, provided by Oren chef Gert Vos: Jewish sourdough bialys, blueberry and cardamom cake and Norwegian Jarlsberg cheesecake. 

Here's Rebecca after her reading:




And here's some of the food, already well and truly attacked:



Next week, of course, I'm off to Norwich to read along with other contributors to Unthology 7 - hope it warms up a bit by then!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Publication day for Unthology 7


The day has arrived! Unthology 7, which includes my Short-Fiction-Prize-winning story 'Looking for the Castle', is unveiled to coincide with an event at the London Short Story Festival this afternoon, when editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones will be talking all things Unthology. If you're in London, get down there - I would! - before it's sold out (the Gatekeepers event this morning was sold out, apparently). Waterstones, Piccadilly, Lower Ground floor, 3.pm. Today it's possible to buy copies of Unthology 7, and they can be bought from the Unthank website.

Next Thursday (25th) will be the official launch of the book in Norwich, and I'll be reading along with fellow contributors Gary Budden, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, Elaine Chiew, Dan Powell and Adrian Cross. 7.30pm, upstairs at The Library restaurant, 4A Guildhall Hill, Norwich, NR2 1JH, FREE. Can't wait for that - off on a train down the east of the country to lovely Norwich and to meet all those talented writers and our editors!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Nightjar Press at Verbose

Verbose is a live literature night held on the fourth Monday of every month at Fallow Cafe in Fallowfield, South Manchester. Reappearing in a new incarnation in January with host Sarah-Clare Conlon, it showcases literary collectives and independent publishers along with open mic sessions, and is proving to be a significant literary hang-out event, packed to the gills each time I've been there, with people standing, and even sitting on the stairs up to the room where the event is held. May's event featured Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press through which he publishes an impressive series of single-story chapbooks, a vibrant evening when the readers were Nick himself, Nightjar contributor and Booker-shortlisted Alison Moore, and poet and short-story writer Kate Woodward. As the editor also of the Best British Short Stories series (Salt) and a university teacher, Nick is concerned with a wide range of short-story writing, but the focus of Nightjar is the uncanny, the unnerving and the surreal, which the evening splendidly provided. Nick read one of his signature bird-themed stories in which a new relationship turns distinctly sinister; Alison Moore read a story from her Salt collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, in which a second-person, present-tense narration which seems at first to be the thoughts of a lone woman running turns out to be something much more horrifying; and Kate Woodward read a story which made everyone laugh, but whose narrator, it is gradually revealed, is by no means in a happy situation or indeed of this world. The open mic was pretty good, too.


 The night was also the first outing for Nightjar's two new releases: a new story by Alison, and another by Tom Fletcher, also a previous Nightjar contributor. Tom Fletcher's 'The Home' is a nightmarish dream state in which a man helplessly watches his wife on a TV screen stumbling and lost in a barren moon-like landscape and pursued by a terrifying but unknown being, a story steeped in Fletcher's characteristic atmosphere of unease and longing and dread. Alison Moore's 'The Harvestman' has a contrasting tone. Told in her measured and lucidly imagistic stye, it concerns a lone young lad who has newly left home for a seaside town, and is a story about fear, and the way that fear can pull danger down towards itself - which, in spite of the coolness of the style, imbues the story with impending doom.

Next month's Verbose is on 22nd June, and features the Manchester-based experimental poetry reading series, The Other Room, with James Davies, Tom Jenks and Scott Thurston. 7.30 - but get there early if you want a seat! Visit the Verbose website to sign up for the open mic.

Nightjar chapbooks are published in signed, limited editions. They are available here.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Reading group: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Trevor suggested this early-50s novel, a satirical treatment of post-war Los Angeles. Dennis Barlow, a young English poet and scriptwriter whose contract at Megalopolitan Studios has expired, has taken work in a pets' funeral parlour, thus letting down the Hollywood English side which exists on an ethos (sometimes illusory, sometimes real) of old-world aristocratic privilege.
Sir Ambrose wore dark grey flannels, and Eton Rambler tie, an I Zingari ribbon in his boater hat. This was his invariable dress on sunny days; whenever the weather allowed it he wore a deerstalker cap and an Inverness cape. 
The (real) aristocrat and once-chief script writer Sir Francis Hinsley, with whom Dennis is living, also pushed out by the increasing bureaucratisation and 'modernisation' of the studio, commits suicide. Dennis becomes perforce involved in the world of Whispering Glades, the Los Angeles funeral parlour and burial 'Park' on which the pets' funeral parlour, The Happier Hunting Ground, is modelled with hopeless lack of success. Devised and owned by 'The Dreamer', Whispering Glades is a place more steeped in illusion and sentimentality and cynical commerce than Hollywood itself, where every utterance is wordy overblown euphemism, with hilarious slippages: having given Dennis a po-faced list of the available 'means of disposal'  - 'inhumement, entombment, inurnment, or immurement, but many people just lately prefer sarcophagusment' - the 'Mortuary Hostess' reassures Dennis that they will be able to make the hanged Sir Francis presentable by referring to a long-drowned man they worked on: ' ''We fixed that stiff" '. The dead are referred to as the 'Loved Ones', and grieving relatives and friends, referred to as 'Waiting Ones', are led into the 'Slumber Room' to view the bodies, which, in keeping with the general denial of the reality of death, are decked up to look alive:
...a little room, brightly furnished and papered. It might have been part of a luxurious modern country club in all its features save one. Bowls of flowers stood disposed about a chintz sofa and on the sofa lay what seemed to be the wax effigy of an elderly woman dressed as though for an evening party. Her white gloved hands held a bouquet and on her nose glittered a pair of rimless pince-nez.
While Dennis is arranging Sir Francis's funeral, the Hostess tries to interest him for himself in their 'Before Need Provision'.

Dennis is a searingly satirical observer of all this, and mouthpiece for Waugh, but his own behaviour is not spared the burn of Waugh's satire as he takes up with the somewhat stupid mortuary cosmetician, Aimee Thanatogenos (her name means, of course, 'death-birth'), operating his own deception by wooing her with famous poems he passes off as his own (and which, uneducated and naive, she doesn't recognise), and as he becomes entangled in a love triangle with Aimee and Mr Joyboy, a whizz mortician revealed, in yet another peeling away of illusion, to be in private both unglamorously downtrodden and selfish.

All of our group enjoyed reading this short novel, relishing above all the verbal satire. There was no argument, and people simply noted that the book was a sharp skewering of a world of commercial illusion - prefiguring, as Trevor noted, the illusions and glosses of our present-day commercial culture - and picked out moments and phrases they had particularly enjoyed. The characters were mere ciphers, we noted, as is common in satire, although I did think that Dennis underwent something of a personality transplant in the latter half of the book when his relationship with Aimee sours, becoming rather more callous than his earlier mere pragmatism might have led us to expect. John said that this made him think that Waugh simply didn't understand love, which I reminded him was exactly what he had said when we read Waugh's Scoop, and this led on to a discussion of Waugh's personality and life. Trevor thought The Loved One was a better book than Scoop, but most others disagreed, feeling that while it was a sharper and more consistent satire in technical terms (we had thought Scoop wavered unevenly between satire and farce), its themes were shallower and its targets easier. Ann said that, short as the book was, it would have been even sharper if it had been shorter, and that it would have worked best as a short story, and most people agreed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why writing is on hold


I can't write at the moment, and here's why. The room in which I like to write is an attic room, under the sloping ceiling with no space between me and the actual roof. As I work I can hear the pigeons trotting across the slates just above me, and their cooing is a soothing background soundtrack. I feel so at peace there, so removed from the hum-drum world down below and free to sink into other worlds. I know it's a cliche, the writer in the garrett, and it's often presented as a writer's hardship (having to live in a garret, which is traditionally associated with poverty), but our garret is an extra, and I know I'm lucky to be able to work there. However, since it's directly under the roof it's been vulnerable to leaks, and I have often also sat writing with water dripping - and more recently pouring - into a bucket. So now the roof is being mended, the view from the window is blocked by scaffolding, John is working on the window frame, since it went rotten while we didn't consider it worth decorating up there, and everything's covered with drapes. I feel bereft: I had to abandon the desk hastily, because the roofers began earlier than I had expected, and it's a struggle to get back up there to get things I need for writing but had forgotten, as, on the stairway just outside, the old skylight is being replaced and the stairwell is blocked with tarpaulins. And anyway I can't write.


I don't think it's just the sound of hammering above, and battens being thrown down all around; it's also to do with my displacement from my nook. I've puzzled about why, since I've written in so many other places: I've lived in so many other places, for a start, and I've written in basements and shared bedrooms; I've written in other places in this house, on the table I'm sitting at now in our living room, and on the landing, even, with all the doors shut, when I've needed insulation from the sound of other people's roofs and building work being done. I've often written very successfully while travelling alone on trains, usually with the excitement of a brand-new idea, and I think that's a clue, travelling alone being not only stimulation but a kind of mental insulation: a removal from the day-to-day, and a throwing back of oneself onto one's own resources and insights. It's a question, in the main, I've found, of carving out a kind of physical-mental space, a corner of the room, say, where these particular thoughts and inspirations happen. So why can't I do it now? After all, the roofers aren't here at weekends, or when it's raining, as it is at this very moment, and anyway I could take my writing pad and laptop off to a quiet cafe and work there.

I think it's to do with the particular work I want to tackle next, and it makes me realise something about the process of writing, at least as it works for me, as well as having implications, I think, for the kind of fiction our distracting culture makes difficult. What I want to tackle next is a story of very deep emotional turmoil and betrayal, and I know I can't do it - not properly, not with justice - unless I feel utterly calm and sorted and on top of everything. I know that, if I'm not, the story could overwhelm me, and I could fail to achieve a light enough touch for the story not to be overwhelming for the reader. I'm too locked on to it now to turn in the meantime to anything less complex or shorter, but I can't start it in odd moments of peace, as I know it's going to need an immersive and uninterrupted effort.

Seems to me, then, you need to be untroubled to write tragedy well, and you need peace to write of turmoil - not to mention the private income or decent remuneration that can provide them.

Crossposted to Fictionbitch