Sunday, February 10, 2019

'Bitter, Horned' in Litro Online


My story 'Bitter, Horned' can now be read on Litro Online. The picture (credit Sandrine Rouja) shows Creeping Wood Sorrel, the Latin name for which, Oxalis Corniculata, means precisely that: bitter and horned (it's edible but tastes very bitter, and it has funny little seed capsules like horns). This plant, an invasive weed, plays a pivotal part in the story which concerns a newly appointed young gardener with a dodgy past he's trying to overcome and an old lady with a problem with her lawn, but it's also very much a symbol of both of their fears, real and existential, involving issues of homelessness and domestic violence, and indeed their fear of each other. Litro have provided a link so that you can read about the plant, and although I did research it in order to make sure I didn't make any mistakes, I made a point of extracting the information that would best fit the story, and for me it operates chiefly as a symbol serving those themes.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Reading group: Amongst Women by John McGahern

John suggested this 1990 novel which opens as 'once-powerful' ex-IRA commander Moran is declining towards death, and his three adult daughters try to rally him by returning to the farmhouse for 'Monaghan Day', the day of the year when his former IRA lieutenant would once visit after attending the nearby yearly cattle fair, and the two would recount their former republican army glory. The novel then retrospectively charts the years from those times, when the motherless daughters of the house would attend the table, through Moran's courtship of and marriage to a second wife Rose and Rose's saving absorption into the family, the growing and moving away of the daughters, and a serious rift with his youngest child, Michael, who runs away to Dublin and then England to escape a severe beating, a repetition of what had happened with an older son, Luke, before the events being retrospectively related.

Introducing the book, John said he felt it was about the violence of traditional rural Irish lives under the oppression of religion and English colonisation, and the need of young people to escape it (either to Dublin or London). It was also, he said, a study of male attitudes under these conditions. Moran is a broody man with a temper. When Rose joins the household, she notices his children are stilled when he enters a room, watching him for his mood 'like the weather', and if the girls break a piece of crockery they are seriously afraid of his wrath and hide the pieces so he will not know. Rose herself quickly learns that he must be appeased, and takes on the role of pourer of oil on troubled waters, keeping determinedly cheerful for the sake of the children as well as her own. For these reasons, John said he felt that the book was ultimately about war and its dehumanising effects on men.

Ann said she thought it was rather about families, or a specific family. I didn't think there was a real discrepancy here: surely what the book is showing is the chain effect of those outward political circumstances on the families of those men, their invasion into the privacy of the home and the lives of children. This is brilliantly codified by the opening of the novel, in which Moran's daughters, who love him in spite of everything, are actively trying to revive for him his former IRA glory. Moran does indeed bring his mode of military command into the home along with the oppressive aspect of the Catholic Church: although not a church-goer, he will interrupt any household activity by commanding the whole family to drop to its knees and say the rosary.

I commented that there isn't really much of a dramatic story arc in this novel - it really simply traces a now mundane life from middle-aged virility to death - yet somehow it was extremely engrossing. Everyone else agreed - they had all really loved the book, and thought it beautifully written. John noted that the style is in fact very traditional, with a lot of telling rather than showing, which he thought was perhaps why, although he and I had read the book years ago, we hadn't really remembered it - there was perhaps a lack of vividness. This time around I did note a brilliant moment right at the beginning where the narrator bothers to call the yew tree in the garden 'poisonous' - a vivid hint of the poison in Moran's relationship with his family - but I didn't note any other such symbolic moments as I read. John said he felt there was actually a (subsidiary) story arc concerning the progress of Michael, which slightly skews the more generally democratic focus of the novel, and he found Michael more vivid than the rest of the characters. He wondered therefore if the novel were autobiographical and Michael a veiled portrait of the author. He also noted that there is a huge gap in the novel: the narration gives no sense of the dead wife and mother, whereas we all felt that there ought naturally to be, since the novel deals with the feelings and attitudes of all the characters - the elder girls who have taken on her role in the household would surely have a constant memory of her. The much younger Michael is likely to have less memory of her - she must have disappeared from his life at a much earlier age - (and he is the one child who takes to Rose as a mother figure, the older girls treating her more as a sister), and this perhaps reflects the fact that McGahern's own mother died when he was very young, reinforcing the notion that Michael is to some extent a self-portrait.

One point that was made was that this was a world that no longer exists, that with the weakening of the power of the church and membership of the European Union, Ireland is now very different (though John wasn't sure of this). Nevertheless, we all still found the novel politically and emotionally resonant, indeed impressive, and we had all been very moved.

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

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Confingo magazine, and online versus print publication.

I'm delighted to say that another of my stories has been accepted by the excellent Confingo Magazine. It's yet another of the stories I've been writing recently that touch on particularly contemporary issues - though, as I say, the real heart of these stories for me is the particular personal dilemmas for their protagonists. Publication won't be until October, as the forthcoming Spring issue is now more or less decided. In the days before online magazines this was the norm with story submissions - a good wait between acceptance and publication, but recently I've been experiencing the more quick-fire publishing schedules of online magazines. My story 'Kiss' was published in MIR Online in December within two or three weeks of acceptance and, 'Bitter, Horned', accepted only last week, will appear on Litro on 10th February. It would be easy, in view of this, to get impatient with the slow process of print publication, but there are pros and cons. For one thing, there's really nothing like having a print copy of something you've written, and online magazines can disappear and along with them their stories. Salt's Online Magazine, Horizon Review, on which I had had three stories published, 'The Choice Chamber', 'What Do You Do If' and 'Possibility', was deleted from their site. Luckily they had been captured by the WayBack Machine web archive, so I was able to provide links to that, but when I discovered recently that the defunct online magazine The View From Here had disappeared altogether I was quite unable to retrieve the story of mine they'd published, 'Tides: How Stories Do or Don't Get Told': not a single one of the snapshots the WayBack Machine had taken of the magazine included its page. It's just fortunate that that story (along with the three others) is included in my Salt collection, Used to Be (and, before that, in Best British Short Stories 2014). Print publications, after all, last forever, and Confingo is indeed a classy publication (with beautiful artwork) that you'd want to keep.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The waywardness of stories

The New Year is going well: yesterday I was delighted to hear that a new story, 'Bitter, Horned', will be published on Litro Online next month. It's one of several stories I've written recently that deal with some pressing current issues I've been getting exercised about.  While 'Kiss' (MIR Online) concerns terrorism, this story concerns the triple issues of housing and the threat of homelessness, environmental pollution and domestic violence. However, the real trigger for writing about anything for me is always deeply personal: some human situation I've experienced or observed and which has deeply moved me, and it just so happens that the human dilemmas in these particular stories are embedded in these social and political issues. I was beginning to feel that this was my new schtick in storywriting, but then of course a story pops up that doesn't fit the pattern - I have now been moved to write a story divorced from any current political issue but based in one of my abiding themes, the difficulty of communication in personal relationships - as indeed was my recently V S Pritchett longlisted story. Stories - in some ways you just can't control them, and I guess that's the exciting thing.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Dramatic and quiet stories. 'Kiss' chosen for Best British Short Stories 2019

Happy New Year!

I have started the new year on a bit of a high, as my story 'Kiss' which early last year was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal prize and was recently published on MIR online, has been chosen by editor Nicholas Royle for inclusion in Best British Short Stories 2019, to be published by Salt later this year. This is the second time I've had a story in this great series - in 2014 my story 'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told', made it (interestingly, that had also been previously published online) - and it's a huge thrill to have a published story receive this further - and prestigious - acknowledgement. ('Kiss' is the story I wrote about in my post on research for fiction.)

I've had three strikes with this story, basically, and pretty quickly (it did get two blanks, with two other competitions), but as far as I can remember 'Tides' suffered a few rejections before being accepted for publication and finally receiving critical praise in reviews of Best British Short Stories. It's made me ponder the mystery of why some stories make it easily and quickly, and others take some time to get acceptance even though they may do well in the end. Perhaps to some extent it's subject matter: as a story concerning terrorism, 'Kiss' involves an urgent current topic and a dramatic situation. There's also the question of the form of a story: the urgency of the situation in 'Kiss' is reflected in a deliberately rushed, breathless prose. 'Tides', on the other hand, is consciously contemplative both in subject matter and style - I guess you could say it was a 'quiet' story. And 'Kiss' involves sexuality, including a new and youthful relationship, whereas 'Tides' concentrates on the quieter poignancy of a long-term relationship. Yet to me these two stories are equally dynamic in terms of their themes and the issues they raise. (I'm afraid 'Tides' is no longer online, but it can be read in my latest story collection, Used to Be [Salt].)

It makes me wonder: are 'quieter' stories less likely to catch the eye of competition judges and magazine editors overwhelmed with material and inevitably to some extent scanning on first sight? Is there such a thing as a 'competition story', as I have long suspected? It would be a great pity if quieter, more contemplative, but no less accomplished and thematically important stories were to be squeezed from our culture...

Monday, December 31, 2018

Reading Group: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Jenny's suggestion, this very short novel has been a runaway hit in its author's native Japan, and in translation worldwide. It's the first-person narration of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old single woman who failed to fit into society as either a child or an adult, but then at the age of eighteen found her metier in the brightly-lit, regimented and sterile world of a convenience store, where, to the dismay of her family, she still works and which is her whole life. 'Even when I'm far away,' she tells us, 'the convenience store and I are connected', and 'When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel I'm as much part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine'.

Keiko's existence is disrupted however by the advent of a new young male recruit Shiraha who feels no such allegiance to the store, constantly found to be slacking and openly and repeatedly questioning its world and the conventional structures of Japanese society to which Keiko's family and friends keep trying to get her to conform. Very soon he is sacked, and Keiko comes up with a solution for them both: if he comes and lives in her flat and is kept by her, he will not need to work and will be able to hide away from the world he so despises, and her family will assume a sexual relationship and will finally leave her alone.

Everyone present said that they had found the book a fascinating, even compelling read, with its light but deadpan and repetitive prose (codifying the world of the store and its workings), but were left unmoved. Clare said she had found it slight, and others agreed, and most people ended up not knowing quite what to make of it. Mainly, people didn't know what to make of Keiko herself. Jenny said she assumed she was autistic. She lacks the moral and emotional sense of most other people: as a child she stopped an argument between two boys by hitting one over the head with a spade and was then puzzled by people's horrified reactions; while all the other children peered with empathy and sorrow at a pretty dead bird, she suggested taking it home and cooking it. Later, she turned to her younger sister for instructions on how to behave, and still does so, and consciously mimics the behaviour, speech patterns and clothes of others - 'My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me' - which John, a psychologist, said is a recently acknowledged stratagem in female autism. When Shiraha treats her badly, demanding and then despising the food she provides and taking to sitting all day in her bath so that she has to go out and use a public one, her only reaction is fascination. Clare, also a psychologist, said that she didn't find it particularly useful to try to pin a specific label on Keiko: it was more satisfying just to accept her as odd.

I said, But isn't part of the point of the book that it's not just Keiko who is odd, and possibly autistic, but the society around her? Surely the convenience store itself into which she fits so snugly - 'a cog in society' as she puts it, 'the only way I can be a normal person' - and which, apparently is such a huge aspect of Japanese society, is also autistically odd, with its dehumanising automatic regimes?  And isn't there a kind of autism in the 'normal' societal attitudes of her friends and family, who it seems would prefer her to have any sort of relationship, even an unhappy one, than to be single and happy? Mark had expressed amazement that this book could have become such an international bestseller, but some of us had read that the reason it had become such a success in Japan (and in consequence elsewhere) was that it had hit a particular nerve there, homing in on a development in Japanese society whereby young people are rejecting relationships and turning to singledom and celibacy, and young men like Shiraha turning their backs on the world and incarcerating themselves in their homes.

For most of us, however, there seemed something of a conundrum. Is Keiko at odds with society, or is she one of its 'cogs'? The book seemed to want it both ways. I suppose you could draw the conclusion that an autistic social system creates autistic individuals, but it did seem hard to get your head around what seemed like a lack of thematic logic. Some reviewers seem to have taken the book as a satire, but in this way it lacked the logic of satire, and no one in our group found the book funny in the ways reviewers have suggested it is.

Our discussion didn't last very long - there didn't seem a great deal to say - and we soon dissolved into discussions about supermarkets, forgetting the book altogether.

Doug had failed to turn up, having forgotten the meeting, and wrote afterwards that it was perhaps something to do with the fact that he hadn't liked the book at all.


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

Friday, December 14, 2018

New Publication: "Kiss' on MIR Online



I'm very pleased to say that my story, 'Kiss', which was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize in the Spring, has been chosen by editor Toby Litt for publication on the Mechanics Institute Review Online, and is now up and can be read. This is one of the stories I wrote about in my post on research in writing fiction. Many thanks to Toby Litt and to publisher and copyeditor Peter Coles.