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.

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

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.