Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New story collection

I am thrilled that a new collection of stories by me is to be published in August by the wonderful Salt Publishing (who published my first collection and two of my novels).

My writing life has been pretty quiet for the past year or so: I've been very much stuck to my desk working on two big projects (so I haven't had many comings and goings to write about here, and when you've spent a whole day squeezing your brain there's not much juice left for bloggish reflection), but I guess life will be different now that there's a publication in the offing.

Strange, the writing life, with its swings from hermit-like withdrawal to utter busy-ness out in the world. I wouldn't have it any other way...

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Reading group: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

If the last few meetings are anything to go by, our group seems to be developing a consensus about books - a bit of a change from some of the heated arguments we've had in the past.

All present admired and were greatly moved by this famous German novel suggested by Clare. Written in the aftermath of the First World War, and based on Remarque's own experience at the Western front, it is the searing first-person account of a young regular soldier's experience of the conflict. All of us said that although there is so much material about the First World War, so that one feels one knows all about it, reading this book was an eye-opening experience. Unlike most accounts (such as those of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy of novels and of the British War Poets) it presents the vivid perspective not of an officer, but of a regular soldier. Pushed by their teacher with his ideology of national glory, the narrator and his classmates enlist as regulars at the age of eighteen, but, thoughtful and intelligent, the narrator is very soon aware of the ironies of army life and reflects on its de-civilising and dehumanising nature:
'At first astonished, then embittered, and finally indifferent, we recognised that what matters is not the mind but the boot brush, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but the drill... After three weeks it was no longer incomprehensible to us that a braided policeman should have more authority over us than had formerly our parents, our teachers and the whole gamut of culture from Plato to Goethe.'
Not only does the book present in acute detail the physical experience for the ordinary soldier, it is intently concerned with the psychological effects of war. Once his unit is moved into active service on the front, and as his experiences become searing, the narrator comments on the disassociation required to perform a soldier's tasks and manoeuvres, the suppression of thought and feeling - the need to be all animal instinct - simply to be able to stay safe. He comes to understand the devastating consequences for his generation. Home on leave, where the war is still viewed in terms of glory, and thus unable to communicate his experience, he sees that his particular generation of young men - signing up before they had had the chance to develop lives back home to return to - will be forever destroyed, alienated from society even if they survive the war, their promise shattered. I said that at the point where the narrator voices this notion, I was in floods of tears, and everyone agreed that it was devastatingly moving.

Needless to say, in the run-up to the Second World War the book was banned in Germany as unpatriotic. People in our group however expressed an appreciation of the fact that for us British readers the German point of view dispensed with all issues of patriotism and underlined the devastating effects of war per se for all. We were all immensely moved by the incident, recalling Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting',  in which the narrator instinctively kills a Frenchman who jumps into a crater in which he is sheltering, only to then see his humanity and mourn him.
'I see how peoples are set one against another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains in the world invent weapons and words to make it more refined and enduring.'
Clare said that she wasn't sure it was the greatest literature, but it was certainly a book worth reading for its message. I said, though, I found that the style in which it is written - a particular plain realist style that was fashionable in Germany between the two wars - served admirably its stark subject matter and message, and was in any case enlivened throughout by moments of incisive irony: 'little Albert Kropp, the clearest thinker among us and therefore only a lance-corporal'. (There is a wonderfully droll irony in a discussion amongst the soldiers, prompted by a visit from the Kaiser, about why wars occur.) Like Clare, the rest of us said we were really glad to have read the book, and grateful to her for having suggested it.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A time-lapse year

Happy New Year to all!

It's been a funny time-lapse sort of year for me, writing-wise. All last winter I holed in and worked intensively on something long and then got stalled on it for various reasons not to do with writing, so there's nothing to show for it yet and may not be for a while. In the meantime, however, although as far as the actual writing went my focus was away from short stories, stories I'd written previously were published in several anthologies. In January I was in York at a signing for Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, ed. A J Ashworth (Unthank Books), for which my story 'That Turbulent Stillness' was commissioned - an amusing day I wrote about here. Spring and summer brought three more anthologies. Best British Short Stories 2014, ed. Nicholas Royle (Salt) was launched in June at the first-ever London Short Story Festival and included my story 'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told', first published online by Fiction Editor Kate Brown at The View From Here. This was followed the very next week by Unthology 5, ed. Ashley Stokes & Robin Jones (Unthank), where my story 'Clarrie and You' appeared, which involved me in a truly enjoyable first-time trip to Norwich for the launch. In July I attended the 13th Conference on the Short Story in English in Vienna, and my story 'Where the Starlings Fly' was one in an anthology of stories by writers invited to read at the conference, Unbraiding the Short Story, ed. Maurice A Lee. Finally, in the autumn, my inverted ghost story 'A Matter of Light' saw publication in an anthology of creepy stories from Honno, The Wish Dog, ed. Penny Thomas and Stephanie Tillotson. In fact, I ended up with a clash: I was really sorry to have to miss the Cardiff launch of this book as I was already committed to read at an event at Edge Hill University for Best British Short Stories 2014, organised by fellow contributor and lecturer Ailsa Cox. Meanwhile, during the summer, my story 'Looking for the Castle' was runner-up in the Short Fiction competition, and in the week before Christmas I heard that it is to be published in Unthology 7 by Unthank Books in the coming summer.

After my winter of seclusion, I became suddenly a writer once more in touch with the wider literary world. A long time ago now I gave up teaching writing to concentrate more on my own work. I was lucky to be able financially to do that, I know, but the fact is that I was becoming decidedly itchy for the creative and intellectual stimulation I always found in teaching. So when in March I was invited to read at the Vienna conference, I jumped at the chance, and have to say that I revelled in the conference, in the to-and-fro with academics and other writers. An upshot was that I was invited to join a narrative research group, and I have to say that although peace and isolation are essential ingredients in the life of the writer, there's little more stimulating than sharing ideas about writing with your peers and to be able to feel a sense of your own place as a writer within the wider world of literary ideas. By the same token, I accepted a generous invitation to join the writers' group to which three of my writing colleagues already belonged, and I'm once again experiencing that mutual support between writers who trust and respect each other - there's really nothing like it.

I'm entering 2015 with a lot lined up writing-wise: two longer pieces to redraft and, before Easter, a commission to write a short story and linked essay, but I'm thrilled to be able to say I'm doing it all with a sense of backup, and with a greater sense of context in which to do it.

I wish you all similar happiness in your projects for the coming year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

New story publication

Great news yesterday that my story 'Looking for the Castle' is to be included in Unthology 7, due from Unthank Books in the summer. Editor Ashley Stokes had been deciding between two of my stories and this is the one he has finally plumped for, and I'm pleased, as it's by far the more complex of the two, another of the stories in which I've tried to do something more ambitious in the short story form than previously. ('Clarrie and You', which Unthank also published [Unthology 5] was another). One of the strange paradoxes of my writing life is that sometimes the things I've found easiest (and quickest) to write have been the easiest to publish or broadcast, and have received the most acclaim. Sometimes, I know, this is just because the thing happened to work right from the start, and the ease of conception comes out in the writing, but there's often the sneaking suspicion that the ease comes from, not exactly superficiality, but familiarity: a reliance on tried and tested codes. In these instances I feel that the reason the thing was so easily accepted was because I was writing into a borrowed reality - other people's, rather than my own. Then I feel I've cheated myself and my deeper aim in writing, which is precisely to question the ready-made realities.

The short story form is famously capable of exposing ambiguity and uncertainty, but there's also a danger of using its compactness to shut things down, to present a satisfying (but ultimately stifling) take on the world. In 'Clarrie and You' I wanted to show precisely how any 'take' on the world can be mistaken, and in order to do that I had to include a convoluted plot involving a secret, a real challenge for the short story form. 'Looking for the Castle' is similar, but this time it's not a secret creating a false view but the difficulties of memory and lack of understanding. It was one of the hardest
of my stories to write, and I'm hugely grateful to both Gerard Donovan, who judged the 2014 Short Fiction Prize and chose it as runner-up, and now to Ashley Stokes, for seeing what I was trying to do.

Crossposted to Fictionbitch.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lovely new review of Too Many Magpies

It's a funny, once you start a new novel all your eggs are in the new basket, and you're striving to achieve things you feel you haven't achieved before, so the novels you wrote previously tend to fade in your own estimation. And then you come across a lovely review of one of the earlier ones, and it's like realising you've been taking a loved one for granted. Here's what Amazon reviewer Rachel Smart says about Too Many Magpies:
This rather slim book holds such depth and human truth that it's unnerving. I've read 'Too Many Magpies' numerous times since June because I'm bowled over by the sheer craft of the words and the quiet stalk of its narrative structure. The arrangement of language is beautiful - detailed yet spare and sets scientific fact up against the modern moralities and myths of an organic life style. There is breathtaking illumination of the innate maternal fears that mothers suffer, and the dark anxiety that gnaws at the main character makes every other book I've read recently wither into insignificance. The writer, Elizabeth Baines has a clear narrative reign on the most deep-rooted issues in a woman's psyche. It's quite simply a stunning read and this is one of the most accomplished pieces of work I've read in the last few years.

What? She's read it numerous times since June?! It's one of the most accomplished pieces of work she's read in the last few years? It makes every other book she's read recently wither into insignificance? Well, wow: I don't think you could get a better review than that, not in my view anyway. You know, it's just so wonderful to know when a book you've written touches someone that much, and I'm so grateful to her for telling others that it has.

And there's another Amazon review of Magpies I hadn't seen before: 'Silly01' calls the book
Unique, harrowing and highly original. This book deserves more publicity, it had a long-lasting impact on me, though it was not a quick read, you have to take your time to absorb the beautiful language and the emotions.

 They've both made my Christmas, basically.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Catch up

The family issues keep on distracting me from my blogs (and from writing - which is dreadful!), so some of the interesting events I've attended this autumn just haven't got reported here. One thing I should have blogged about (I did take notes, because I intended to) was a Manchester Literature Festival reading with Martin Amis and Nick Laird, which I did find very interesting. (It was one occasion when Amis proudly called himself a Philo-Semite, for which he's since been criticised on the grounds that it's racist to characterise a people as all good, as well as to characterise it as all bad). Amis is always very listenable to, and of course his prose is vivid and rhythmically flawless. I was very struck, too, by the sense of a lot of what Nick Laird said about literature and writing.

Another was the launch of Carys Davies's superb second collection of short stories from Salt, The Redemption of Galen Pike, a lovely evening held at Daunt Books in Holland Park. Many of the stories in this book have won or have been long- or shortlisted in major awards, such as the V S Pritchett and Society of Authors awards, the Manchester Writing Prize, the EFG Sunday Times award and others. Carys's writing is taut and vivid, with both a mythic quality and a touching insight into human frailty. I strongly recommend her book.

I thoroughly enjoyed two very recent events. Last week at Edge Hill University, C D Rose and Edge Hill Prize winning Kevin Barry gave truly stimulating readings. C D Rose's book, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House), is a brilliant compendium of talented but failed writers (and a rebuttal of the assertion that 'talent will out'). Fact or fiction? Well, it's not immediately clear, and that of course is the point: if, through external circumstances, you disappear from literary history or never make it in the first place, you may as well be fictional. Innovatively, before he read the first entry, C D Rose read the Index of the book, which sounded like a long poem and was both hilarious and moving. Kevin Barry read 'Fjord of Killary', a story from his Edge Hill Prize winning collection Dark Lies the Island (Cape). His reading was so animatedly brilliant that I wondered if the story would stand up to my scrutiny when I read it on the page, but it certainly did - as did all the others in his wonderful collection.

Here are the two writers in the Q & A afterwards with convener Ailsa Cox (C D Rose on the left and Kevin Barry in the centre):


The next evening I was at Halle St Peter's in Manchester, the beautiful Ancoats church with its elegant airy interior converted as a rehearsal space for the Halle orchestra. The event I was attending was part of the project Different Spirit, a series of installations and events curated by Helen Wewiora and produced by Julie McCarthy, Creative Director of 42nd Street, a charity working with young people under stress. This was a musical event, titled Local Recall, and the culmination of work done by Open Music Archive artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White with the 42nd Street young people in the Ancoats area and Unity Radio. Simpson and White work to explore the potential of public domain material, and for this project they revisited the free art, music and lectures that were available to the Ancoats public from the late 1880s. Using piano player rolls, the young people had remixed, cut up, looped and re-assembled Victorian popular songs, and this was what we first heard when we arrived and milled about the church - very impressive. Then there were two live piano recitals: first, musician Serge Tebu took Victorian popular songs as starting points for jazz improvisation and then recent RNCM graduates Calum McLeod and Liam Waddle played new music they had composed using the remixes made by the 42nd Sreet young people - really quite stunning.



 Finally, after the break, we saw a breathtaking film made by Simpson and White using out-of-copyright footage and making haunting visual connections between the inner workings of a player piano, Edwardian mill scenes, and mid-twentieth-century Ancoats streets. The film was accompanied by a live sound track specially commissioned from Graham Massey, founding member of 808 State, composed and played by him on the night using exclusively 1990s technology. A really startling and moving evening, which the large audience greatly appreciated.

Artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White talk about the project.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reading group: Turbulence by Chico Buarque

It's some time now since we discussed this book, Trevor's suggestion, and my main memory, now that the discussion has receded in time, is that although we all found it a very quick and even compulsive read, most of us said that in the end we weren't left particularly affected by it. I have to say though that, looking back, the events of the book, and its atmosphere, have stayed with me quite vividly.

In fact, those events are not easy to relate, since right from the outset there is doubt as to whether all of them really happen, or whether at least some of them are merely possibilities imagined by the first-person narrator, a disaffected young man from a moneyed family who spends the novel more or less in a state of flight through a city of corruption, violence and uncertainty that is clearly the author's home city of Rio de Janeiro. Told in a breathless and immediate present tense that takes the reader right into the action, and in a riffing prose that recalls the author's earlier career as a jazz musician, the novel opens as the unnamed narrator spies an unwanted visitor through the door of his flat. Immediately we are in the realm of uncertainty and paranoia. To begin with, the narrator doesn't know who the visitor can be; we just know that he has cause to worry. Finally, as the unanswered visitor turns away, the narrator recognises him: someone from his past he doesn't want to see. The reader doesn't find out the visitor's identity, however: what's at issue is the narrator's paranoia - justified or unjustified (we just don't know) - as he watches the visitor walk away in the street below. The fact that he doesn't look up tells the narrator that the visitor knows he's being watched, which in turn means he knows the narrator is there, which means the narrator needs to escape immediately. As he does so, dressing quickly and leaving, he imagines the visitor stopping his taxi and rushing back to catch him out, a scenario so lengthy and detailed that it has the ring of reality, and indeed likelihood. Thus is established the novel's unique and disorienting mode of slippage between actuality and possibility, and its theme of the thin line between the two - the loss of control and the reality of awful possibility when social order breaks down. We follow the narrator as (escaping his unwanted visitor) he travels to his rich sister for money, tries escape to the farm where he was happy as a child only to find it taken over by criminal squatters whom in turn he must escape, steals jewels from his sister and gets involved in a police heist back at the farm.

The trouble was, our group found unsatisfying the lack of certainty about the events created by both this slippage and the fast pace which made us feel that we were reading too quickly and missing things. I don't think it was clear to any of us what actually happened at the farm in the end - who was who, who was tricking who - but several of us said that in the end we didn't care, not because it didn't matter, but because we had basically lost any emotional investment in the narrator's plight. Clare said she thought that part of the problem was that the prose takes us so deeply inside the unthinking narrator's head: there's no sense of an author distanced from the narrator's psyche and judging it or setting it in context. We had to acknowledge however that immediately after its publication in Brazil the novel sold over 130,000 copies, and that our reaction was probably a Western cultural thing: we like the rational and the certain and a more logical sense of consequence. And, as Ann said, we want redemption, which the ending of this novel, terrible and madly random, certainly doesn't provide.

Even Trevor, who had suggested this book with great enthusiasm, had found it less than satisfying; nevertheless, he said he would now try other books by Buarque, although I'm afraid everyone else said they wouldn't.