Thursday, July 24, 2014

Short Story Conference in Vienna.

I've now written on Fictionbitch about my impression of the 13th International Conference on the Short Story which has just taken place in Vienna, and about some of the panels and readings I attended. Also there's an anthology of stories by writers participating in the conference, edited by conference director Maurice A Lee, and which includes a new story of mine, 'Where the Starlings Fly', available here.

It was was my first-ever time in Vienna, and although there wasn't a lot of time left over, I did do a little bit of sightseeing, and here are some pics of moments snatched away from the conference.

Wide roads and imperial buildings:

Baroque doorways:

Freud's house in Berggasse:

Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz:

Cafe Central, where Freud, Trotsky and other famous figures once played chess:

And a group of us having lunch there. Ailsa Cox, Stef Pixner, Zoe Gilbert, me, Vanessa Gebbie, Tania Hershman, Alison Lock and Catherine McNamara:

Lunch in a historic beer garden, once the garden of a monastery. With Felicity Skelton (left), Ailsa Cox (centre) and Allan Weiss:

Farewell dinner at the Heurigen. First, Moy McCrory, Ailsa Cox, Jim Grady, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Kath Mckay:

And Adnan Mahmutovic, Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman:

And drinks afterwards:

Egon Schiele in the Leopold Museum on the final morning before my plane:

The Secession building containing Klimt's Beethoven Frieze (which you're not allowed to photograph):

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tim Love writes about my work

I'm back from the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English, held last week in Vienna. It was a pretty amazing experience, a fascinating and stimulating insight into the latest thinking about the short story, which I know has given a boost to my practice. I'm still digesting it all, and hope to blog about it soon.

While I was in Vienna I had an email from Tim Love, who has been devoting himself for some time now to thinking seriously and blogging about the short story, telling me that he had posted a blog about my work. It's an attentive piece in which he very much puts his finger on the kind of thing I'm trying to do in my writing - it's so wonderful when that happens. I'm especially touched that he includes a photo of the page in an exercise book where as a schoolboy he copied out one of my stories, 'Cautionary Tale'  - in fact, one of the first I had published (he's written and told me this before). (It's not one in my collection Balancing.) I thank him for his thoughtfulness and insight.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Inspirations: 'Clarrie and You'

I've written a post for the Unthology blog about the inspirations behind my Unthology 5 story, 'Clarrie and You', which can be read here.

Unthank also asked me to look for an image that connected with my story, and I found this amazing painting (above), Sisters of Rural Quebec by Prudence Heward. I love it for itself, but also can't believe how well it sums up the relationship between the two sisters in my story. Not only is it the right era - the era in which the two sisters of my story are children (a past which the story revolves around in the attempt to uncover the reasons for the present-day tensions between them) - but also it beautifully sums up the ambivalence of their lifelong tensions and connection. The way the sisters in the picture are turned from each other yet jammed together by the composition echoes precisely the situation between my two sisters, the preoccupied yet somehow painfully involved expressions of their faces, the light of one and the dark of the other, the greater but perhaps more quotidian stress of the one who looks the elder, and the more closed-off and potentially secretive expression of the other. The ambiguity of their positions: the elder higher, but backgrounded. And all the sharp angles that surround them, the daggers of the leaves, the uncompromising squares of the doors, and the triangle of the composition that plunges them together in their separateness.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Reading group: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Warning: spoiler.

Last month, just before the death of the author Daniel Keyes, we happened to read this, his 1966 novel, much-adapted winner of science-fiction awards and now accepted as a science fiction classic. However, John, who recommended it, said that when he read it years ago he didn't in fact take it as science fiction so much as a psychological study, psychology being a major interest in general in Keyes' work.

The novel consists of the diary entries of Charlie Gordon, a man of 32 with a low IQ who is chosen to take part in an experiment to improve the intellect, involving removal of part of the brain, an operation already carried out with spectacular success on the laboratory mouse Algernon, turning him into a mouse with superb intelligence, able to find his way swiftly through the most complicated maze. The operation on Charlie is successful too, and as the novel proceeds, the diary entries, begun as naive, awkwardly written and badly spelled, become gradually literate and insightful. Charlie's intellectual development, however, reveals the world to him in a different, more jaundiced light: he comes to realise that his bakery workmates have been laughing at him rather than with him, that they were not after all his friends, and as he overtakes them in intellect they begin to resent him, and through this he loses the job he has loved. Eventually he becomes a genius, able quickly to learn many languages and grasp complicated scientific concepts that even the doctors and academics in charge of the experiment don't understand, but his emotional development fails to keep pace, which results in his distress. It is at this point, when Charlie is intellectually lonely (and despising those considered experts) that the mouse Algernon's newly sophisticated faculties begin to falter, and it becomes clear to Charlie that a similar reversal is in store for him. He then devotes himself to investigating the flaws in the experiment before his intellect fails, which it does rapidly, the diary entries quickly returning to their former naivety and lack of literacy.

Most people in the group enjoyed reading the book but it didn't generate any deep discussion. Mark hadn't actually had time to read beyond the early diary entries, but said he really admired the way the author captured the semi-literate voice - 'Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on' - and the gradual way in which the prose style and Charlie's consciousness develop. The chief question the book seemed to be posing, people said, was whether intelligence makes you happy (or whether, as Thomas Gray put it, 'where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise'), which was considered an unoriginal point, Doug being pretty scathing about it, in fact. Someone pointed out that it was also about whether we should value intellectual intelligence over emotional intelligence as we do, a more subtle and important point, and the question of what it is to be human. John said that it was in addition about the morality of using science and technology to interfere with someone's personality - another important and prescient point. He pointed to the memories that Charlie begins to retrieve about his mother, and Charlie's gradual realisation that she rejected him out of an inability to accept his disabilities. The book thus, by implication, questions a similar prejudice and desire for perfection motivating much medical research. The choice of the diary form perhaps points to a concern with the extent to which attention is or isn't paid to the subjective experience of human subjects in clinical trials. In the book, John pointed out, the only people with real empathy with those with disability are those with disabilities themselves. (On the other hand, John, a child psychologist, told us a very interesting fact. We discover in passing that Charlie's condition is phenylketonuria, a congenital metabolic deficiency which if left untreated in infancy causes mental developmental difficulties, but for which, John explained, there is now a diet treatment which is in effect a cure, since patients treated in infancy and childhood no longer in adulthood suffer the metabolic deficiency with which they were born and are therefore no longer in danger of the same mental disintegration.)

Since the ending of the book is not happy, John said, it serves as a warning, but we all felt that the same effect could have been achieved without actually taking us through the reversal in Charlie's intelligence, which is predictable and thus boring. Indeed, John suggested, the book would have been better, and more emotionally affecting for the reader, if it had ended at the point where the highly intelligent and emotional Charlie is facing his doomed fate, rather than descending with him into affectlessness and lack of awareness or concern about anything much.

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

Monday, July 07, 2014

Short Fiction Prize, Edge Hill Prize, and another Unthology 5 review

My short-story-filled summer continues apace. I am staggered to hear that my story, 'Looking for the Castle' is the runner up in this year's International Short Fiction Journal Prize. I'm particularly thrilled that this story has done so well, as it was one of the most difficult and complex I've written, a story about the complexities and uncertainties of memory, and the resultant fragmentation of self - themes I've been concerned with recently in my longer work, but which proved more tricky in the short form. It took a long time to get right; I kept having to mull it and realise it wasn't quite working and go back and make tweaks that might not have seemed much but were, in the end, all-important. My huge congratulations to the winner, Graham Mort, and to the shortlistees Catherine McNamara and Geoffrey Miller, and the longlistees who included my writing colleagues Tania Hershman and Sara Mae Tuson, and my great thanks to the judge, Gerard Donovan. Thanks are also due to my good friend, writer and editor Charles Lambert, who gave me faith in the story when I was beginning to doubt it.

Graham Mort was the winner of the Edge Hill Prize two or three years back, and this year's awards night was held in London's Free word Centre on Thursday, John Burnside winning for his collection Something Like Happy and Rachel Tresize winning the Readers' Choice prize for her collection Cosmic Latte. It's a night I always look forward to, and it didn't disappoint, though one sorry note was the absence due to illness of Ailsa Cox who founded and administrates the prize. I always look forward to a catch-up with my co-editor on the former short-story mag, metropolitan, so that was disappointing. My photo isn't very good, I'm afraid, but on the right at the back are the Salt contingent, representing David Rose whose collection Posthumous Stories was shortlisted, publisher Jen Hamilton Emery far right and editor Nick Royle second from right. On the far left are, second from left, Jackie McCarrick, shortlisted for her collection The Scattering, and fourth from left her editor at Seren Books, Penny Thomas (whom I was thrilled to meet, as she is editing the forthcoming Honno ghost anthology The Wish Dog which includes my story 'A Matter of Light'). In the centre at the back (second from right of the small gap) is Rachel Tresize. Here's John accepting his prize:

As for Unthology 5, it keeps buzzing. There's yet another very positive reviewthis time by Cath Barton on Sabotage Reviews. 'Excellent writing, and not a little in the stories to surprise and sometimes unsettle the reader.' She praises the diversity, but notes too that several of the stories are about disturbing secrets, including my own, 'Clarrie and You', in which she says 'the secrets carry great sadness.' 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

An interview, a new Unthology 5 review and Short Fiction shortlisting

There's an interview with me about the inspiration behind my Unthology 5 story, 'Clarrie and You' - and about short stories generally - on the Unthank website. My interviewer was Mark Mayes, whose unsettling surreal story 'The Regular' also appears in the book. We interviewed each other, so my interview with him will appear soon.

There's also another extremely positive review of the book, this time by The Mole on Our Books Reviews: 'Another brilliant collection compiled by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones that will add a seriously new dimension to commuting or coffee time.' Of 'Clarrie and You' he notes the 'secrets kept instead of honesty shared, but it's something you will have seen and maybe have been complicit in'. 

Oh, and I am thrilled that my story 'Looking for the Castle' has made the short list of the Short Fiction Journal prize, along with those of Catherine McNamara, Geoffrey Miller and Graham Mort.