Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lancashire launch of Red Room

Across the moorland from Bolton to Blackburn last night, very appropriate for the Lancashire launch of Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes. We thought we weren't going to get there in time (John drove me): we'd allowed an hour and three-quarters (thinking we'd have a coffee beforehand) but the motorway up to Bolton was jammed and at a crawl. Arriving also by the skin of their teeth were the other two readers, Carys Davies and Sarah Dobbs. Our waiting editor, A (Andrea) J Ashworth must have been having kittens! The library ladies were waiting too with very welcome tea and chocolate biscuits.  A lovely warm crowd had come to hear us read, and to hear Andrea talk about the book, many of them Bronte enthusiasts, including someone in a Wuthering Heights T-shirt, though there were people there too whose interest in the Brontes was newly rekindled. Two people told Andrea afterwards that they had been prompted by the event to re-read Jane Eyre beforehand. We had some wonderful photos taken by Derren Lee Poole, and with his kind permission I include a few below.

Here's Andrea introducing the evening and explaining how she suggested the idea of an anthology to the Bronte Birthplace Trust, and was then asked to edit it:

Sarah read from her moving story, 'Behind All the Closed Doors', about a young boy whose mother has died and who finds comfort in books in the way the Brontes did. She left us all moved and thoughtful (as I think you can see from my face in the pic!).

Carys then read her poignant story, 'Bonnet', about an imagined visit by Charlotte Bronte to her London publisher with whom she is known to have been in love, and concerning real-life letters that did pass between them. I think it must have been hard for Carys to read it without crying and many of us were choked up, I think.

Before she read Carys said that she thought Bronte aficionados tend to fall into two different camps, the Charlotte camp and the Emily camp. Here I am about to read and telling her that in fact I loved both when I was young, though maybe I did incline a little more towards Emily, as my story, which is inspired by Wuthering Heights, perhaps shows:

Lots of books were bought and signed. Thank you so much to the lovely audience, to the library staff, to Andrea, to Carys and Sarah and to Derren.

Red Room is available here.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Know where your venue is

Last night we had a lovely Red Room evening at the Portico Library with its original Victorian shelves of leather-backed 'Polite Literature' and founded if I remember correctly by Elizabeth Gaskell's husband William - so apt for readings from a book of stories inspired by the Brontes. Our editor, A (Andrea) J Ashworth, whose brilliant idea the book was, introduced the five contributors who read: Bill Broady, Felicity Skelton, Rowena Macdonald, Vanessa Gebbie and me. A fair crowd turned up to listen, including another contributor to the collection, Sarah Dobbs, and the library staff  hosted us all handsomely, putting on a welcome spread of nibbles.

Only one blip, beforehand: I couldn't find the place! No-one would think that I'd been numerous times to the Portico for other readings, and that once I even went there regularly for meetings when I was a judge of the Portico Prize: walking along Moseley Street from Piccadilly I went straight past it and was almost at St Peter's Square before I realised. Worse: poor Vanessa was dragged along with me: we'd met three hours earlier only just up the road in Piccadilly Gardens, to chat and catch up, so expected to be at the venue in plenty of time. In the end, because of my error, we were hardly early at all! Partly this is because we were still chatting so hard I wasn't concentrating, and partly because the entrance is round the corner in Charlotte Street - and pretty modest, too: it really is like going through a secret door and up a tunnelling staircase which then opens out onto a magic world, the glowing lamplit library. Anyway, all was well in the end, and it was a great evening.

Photography was quite hard with my (by current standards) rather rudimentary camera, since, rather than creating an overall brightness, the library has retained the cosy, peaceful Victorian mode of spots of light for reading by, but John (who joined us) managed to take some pics with it.

First Bill Broady read his story 'Heathcliff versus Sherlock Holmes' which features a couple on a first date arguing comically about the merits of those two characters.

Next up was Felicity Skelton, whose story 'The Curate's Wife - a Fantasy' is about an imagined meeting on the lonely darkening moor between Charlotte Bronte and a famous figure from history (I won't reveal who!):

Then Rowena Macdonald read extracts from her longer 'A Child of Pleasure,' a story of two modern characters based on two from Charlotte Bronte's Villette. I followed with an extract from 'That Turbulent Stillness', my story of a girl who models herself too closely on Bronte heroines, and finally Vanessa read her hilarious feminist re-writing of the famous chapter in Jane Eyre, which begins, 'Reader, I married him.' Here are  Sarah Dobbs (left), me (centre) and Vanessa talking afterwards.

Thanks so much to the Portico Library staff, to Andrea and to the other contributors for their great readings, and to everyone who came to listen.

On Wednesday I'll be taking part in another reading for the book at Blackburn Library (7 pm), along with Sarah Dobbs and Carys Davies. (No advance booking: just turn up.) I don't actually know Blackburn, so if I fail at first to find the venue, at least this time it won't be through overconfidence that I know where it is!

Red Room is available from Amazon, The Book Depository, etc, and direct from the publisher, Unthank Books.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

New book from a great writer: Of Dublin and Other Fictions by Nuala Ni Chonchuir

I'm delighted that today this blog is the latest stop in Nuala Ní Chonchúir's tour of her wonderful new chapbook of flash fictions, Of Dublin and Other Fictions (Tower Press). As long-time readers of this blog will know, I'm a great admirer of Nuala's work: her control of language is wonderful, and her fiction is earthy and witty yet lyrical and always moving. This new and delightfully designed book may be little in size, but it packs a huge punch. The themes it covers are wide-ranging and huge, from a historical look at women's experience of the battlefield to a searingly vivid depiction of the grief of a widower to a wry insight into the experience of an immigrant hotel worker. There's also an impressive range in style. I'm always keen to know the processes of writers I admire, and I jumped at the chance to ask Nuala:

EB: Nuala, I'm amazed at the breadth of subject matter and worlds this little book covers, from the viewpoint of a statue of Jesus in 'Jesus of Dublin' and the historical piece about a battle, '12th July 1691',  to the very contemporary 'The Road that Mills and Boon Built'. Could you say something about that, and what you find attractive or useful about flash fiction as a vehicle?

NUALA: I’ve been working on novels for the last few years and they are so time-consuming, as you know. So I think flash occur to me instead of poems. (My poetry well is dry just now.) It might be because I am in fiction mode, but when something outside of the novel strikes me, and I want to write about it, it emerges as a flash.
I’ve spent the last year on a historical novel and at least one bit of the research for that inspired a story in Of Dublin, ‘Treedaughter’. My novel is domestic (oh, crime of crimes!) so I was reading up a lot about 19th century baking techniques etc. and I came across some egglore that sparked ‘Treedaughter’.
'12th July 1691' was written in response to the Jacobite war. One of the battles took place five miles from where I live and we took that battle – Aughrim – as a theme for my Artist Collective’s annual exhibition.
I love flash as both reader and writer; I love that they support the surreal so well and that language is key. I also like that, unlike many poems, flash have a narrative thrust. They just suit me, I think. Here’s an example of the type of flash I enjoy, ‘Body of Sister Jean Marie’ by Emily Davis-Fletcher from Southword

EB: ‘Treedaughter' and 'Jesus of Dublin' are surreal, yet others are grounded in a rich realism - such as the wry and touching  'Room 313' (about a hotel chambermaid) and the earthy 'Penny and Leo and Married Bliss' (a rewriting of Joyce's Ulysses). Can you talk about the fact that you use these two different approaches in your writing?

NUALA: I’m attached to the surreal in visual art as much as in fiction – I love a dripping Dali or mad Max Ernst piece more than, say, an ancient religious picture. In writing, I don’t make any decisions about what or how to write – things occur to me in certain ways and I follow them to see if they lead anywhere.
 ‘Room 313’ was a commission from a Serbian magazine who wanted stories set in hotels (I think I can’t write to order but sometimes it works out).  'Jesus of Dublin' is about a real statue in Dublin’s O’Connell Street and I love it and I wondered what he would say if he could speak.
I think because language is sacred to me that even in realistic stories I like to add a bit of something that is off-kilter or odd, even if it is just an unusual place-name or character name. The mundane doesn’t interest me and my brain often alights on the surreal, or likes to twiddle with things, to make them enjoyable to write.

EB: Many – though not all – of these stories are written in the first person. Do you think flash fiction particularly lends itself to this mode, and if so why?

NUALA: I hadn’t realised that, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’m obsessed with the first person and the second person as narrative voices. Third person doesn’t attract me that much. I like to ‘be’ the character I am writing about and that is so easy in first person POV.
Whether it suits flash in general better or not, I don’t know. It certainly suits me because the voice of a story is important to me – it has to sound right, like a real person, and if I haven’t got that, I don’t have a story.

Thanks so much to Nuala. Do buy the book, you won't regret it. It's available here.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. Of Dublin and Other Fictions is just out in the US and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos will be published in spring 2014 by New Island.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Honno ghost story anthology

Although some of my work has included spooky elements, I don't think I've ever written an out-and-out ghost story before. However, I did write one recently and I'm delighted that it's to be published in an anthology of ghost stories from the Welsh Women's Press, Honno, next autumn.

The story came out of a trip I made in May 2012. John and I travelled to Bristol to the launch of the second short fiction collection by my good writing friend, Tania Hershman, My Mother Was an Upright Piano - a lovely event at the Arnolfini Centre on the docks. Here's a photo of us having dinner afterwards (Tania is third from left and I'm next to her; far right is Bristol Prize founder Joe Melia).

In spite of having relatives in Bristol I'd never before made anything but flying visits there, so this time I stayed on afterwards and explored. One place that made a huge impression on me was the Georgian House, built for the sugar merchant John Pinney, preserved more or less in its original state and furnished in the way it would have been in Pinney's lifetime.

It's a beautiful house, with clean lines and airy spaces, so unlike the dark Victorian gothic that lends itself so well to the brooding and unearthly. Not at all suggestive of ghosts... And yet...

The house stayed in mind, an idea was forming, and there I was a year later setting a ghost story in just such a house...

Honno previously published two other short stories of mine, in their anthology Power: 'Power', which is collected in Balancing on the Edge of the World, and another, 'Skin Eaters.'.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Reading group: Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips

John suggested this novel, which he remembered causing a sensation when it was published in 1984. Set in an unidentified town in the American mid-south it tells the story of three generations of a family from the Depression to the era of the Vietnam war in the early seventies. It is told in a spare yet haunting prose via the alternating perspectives of husband and wife Jean and Mitch, who marry soon after the Second World War, and their two children, Danner, a girl, and Billy her younger brother who ends up in Vietnam. Danner's is however the central consciousness: the novel begins with Jean's and then Mitch's first-person reminiscences of their experiences growing up, as told to their daughter Danner, which makes it clear that all of the following intimate third-person sections are filtered through Danner's consciousness, and suggests, as John said, that the novel is to a great extent autobiographical.

The events described, as John said, are mundane in the extreme except for the way they are punctuated and coloured by war which, taking place elsewhere, nevertheless takes away the men and thus affects the family. John said that to some extent the novel, with its grounding in mundane day-to-day details, could be said to be boring, though this could be a deliberate contrast with the drama of what happens to Billy in Vietnam. I pointed out that, in spite of the seeming innovation of the multiple voices (and some temporal overlapping across the voices), in fact overall the book is structurally very linear. However, John said that oddly he had remembered the drama concerning Billy as coming much earlier in the novel than he discovered it to be on this second reading, and wondered if this was significant: while it comes only towards the end it detonates in such a way that in retrospect everything that has gone before is coloured by it.

John felt that the book was a depiction of the breakdown of the American Dream. The people are so ordinary, and what happens to them - even the effect of the wars on them - is so ordinary that, as Jenny said, it belies the myth that anyone can be anything, and anyone can be special. The family aspires in true American-Dream tradition - Jean's father begins with a successful business; Mitch's family own land and a successful farm; after the second world war Mitch and his uncle, Clayton, begin a concrete business which at first succeeds - but everything is doomed, and the family moves away from middle-class relative affluence until Mitch is an unhappy divorced travelling salesman living in a basement with his aunt. All of the men in the book are obsessed with machines - with cars and concrete-tipping vehicles and aeroplanes - and John pointed to the old prison building in the book, full of old rusting vehicles and machines, as a symbol of the breakdown of an increasingly mechanised society and the American Dream. Jenny, who had liked the book, saw an additional significance in the machine imagery: the people were cogs in the machine of society. For this reason there's actually no real point in aspiring, and this is why, towards the end, Billy becomes fatalist about being drafted.

People were generally agreed that it was, on this level, a depressing book, though nearly everyone thought it was redeemed from this by the liveliness and resonance of the prose. Clare, who was particularly impressed by the prose, said that she had to agree with John about the ordinariness of the events and the piling on of domestic and workaday detail, and that she probably wouldn't have been able to bear reading the bulk of the book if the prose hadn't been so brilliant. There was agreement that the book took on a more dramatic life towards the end, but Ann said she felt you had to really suffer to get there: she said she kept feeling she just couldn't stand another one-page description of 'how they made the grits' etc. Doug, who had been pretty silent, now said that he couldn't stand the book at all, and he hadn't liked any of the characters, and that was pretty much all he had to say on the subject.

Mark now stood up for the book by pointing out that it was one of the first to address the subject of the Vietnam war, coming before any of the famous eighties films. He said the piling on of workaday detail was justified precisely because it showed the texture of daily life into which the wars seeped. John commented that there might be a theoretical point in that kind of inclusivity, but the question was, did it make for a good novel? People pointed to an episode concerning a leper in Mitch's childhood (an episode that was in fact out of the ordinary) and the fact that it didn't seem to relate particularly to anything else in the novel. There was a general suspicion that it was in fact something that had happened in the author's family, compelling her to include it, and that this may be the impulse behind the inclusion of so much of the detail.

There was some disagreement as to whether it was possible to identify with the characters. I said that it was, that I had identified with them, but Clare said that, brilliantly written as she thought they were, you were looking at them from a certain distance rather than identifying with them. I could see that this might apply to the characters other than Danner, since their perceptions are clearly filtered through hers, but I didn't think it applied to Danner herself. In any case, we even share the characters' dreams, and in the sections where Danner's mother Jean reminisces, speaking directly to her, there is to me such a sense of the closeness of the two that identification with Jean is created for the reader. I think I was alone in this view, though, and John even went so far as to say he thought the characters were deliberately ciphers/stereotypes intended to show the typical nature of their American experience.

John said finally that, although he had to say that he hadn't found the book as stunning as he had when he read it years ago, he still thought it very good, and I think that most people, apart from the determinedly curmudgeonly Doug, and possibly Ann, agreed.

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

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Red Room review.

Here's another really super review of Red Room, by short-story writer Elaine Chiew. She calls it 'a daring, playful collection' and finds 'amazing' the 'breadth and depth of the stories'.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Red Room Publication Day

It's publication day for Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, and there two more wonderful reviews.

The Petals and Pages blog finds the collection 'rich with clues [about the original Bronte works] but it is, in places, wonderfully original with them', and The Bronte Blog 'can't recommend this collection enough'! 

See this post for previous reviews.