Wednesday, November 13, 2019

'Space Travel' in Confingo Magazine

Today through the letterbox came the newest issue of Confingo Magazine which includes my story, 'Space Travel.' I have only belatedly realised the similarity of the title to that of my forthcoming novel, Astral Travel: they are completely different in subject matter! 'Space Travel', the short story, is about a pregnant couple who have been undergoing IVF, and the way that the uncertainty of the pregnancy, and the vulnerability of the babies they have already lost, have made them hyper-aware of the dangers and uncertainty of our present-day world, and our lack of control within it. The title is basically meant as metaphoric - the metaphor of a spaceman connected to his spaceship but floating outside it is used more than once. At one point, when I showed the draft of the story to some writer friends, they suggested I should change the title as it could be misleading, signalling wrongly that the story was science fiction. In fact, however, the possibility of strange things in the sky underpins the story - and indeed begins it, as you can see below - and so I decided to keep the title.

Confingo is a beautifully designed magazine. As usual there is stunning artwork (this time by Elle Brotherhood), and this issue takes an unusual form: the pages are thin card rather than paper, and the whole book is ring-bound. It looks like nothing less than an art publication. You can order it from the Confingo website once it has been added to the shop.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

News: Edge Hill Prize result and new publications

Lots going on for me on the short story front right now. On Friday we held the Edge Hill Prize Award event in Waterstone's Piccadilly, and announced our winner, chosen by yours truly, last year's winner Tessa Hadley, and writer, journalist and publisher Sam Jordison: David Szalay for his stunning collection of linked short stories, Turbulence. As Sam Jordison said afterwards, these seemingly brief and extremely stylish stories, hinged on the fleeting connections between people on plane journeys, magically pack in whole lives and poignantly inhabit the experiences of an amazing span of characters. David also won the Reader's Prize, which is judged by students and alumni of Edge Hill University, for a single story from the same collection.

And as Tessa Hadley said, when she announced the prize, we had a very long discussion and a very hard decision to make when we met back in September in the foyer of London's Tavistock Hotel: all of our shortlist were wonderful - Wendy Erskine's Sweet Home, which gives us a whole world of present-day Belfast via a fantastic ear for speech and an enviable linguistic dexterity; Vicky Grut's collection of great humanity and empathy, Live show, Drinks Included, which at the same time offers a sometimes Kafkaesque vision of contemporary society; Chris Power's Mothers, which takes us on geographical and existential journeys and displays his great gift of showing through language how memory and the past affect our present-day experience and often the trajectory of whole lives; Simon Van Booy's The Sadness of Beautiful Things, which brings the joyous surprise of being about good heartedness; and Lucy Wood's The Sing of the Shore, a haunting collection set in out-of-season Cornwall, the atmosphere of which lingers long after you've finished reading.

Meanwhile, my story 'Kiss', first published in MIR Online, has been selected from Best British Short Stories 2019 to appear in The Barcelona Review, and I'm finally able to announce that my story 'Saying Nothing', which was longlisted in the V S Pritchett Prize last year, is also a finalist and judge's honourable mention in this year's Tillie Olsen Award, announced today and published in The Tishman Review. And I've been writing a commissioned story for an anthology due sometime in the future from an exciting new press, Inkandescent.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Reading Group: In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Most people in our reading group hadn't heard of 'the other Elizabeth Taylor', eclipsed by her film-star namesake when National Velvet appeared in 1944, just as she was beginning her career as a novelist of middle-class mores. She was however greatly admired, by Kingsley Amis among others, and has been considered a very fine writer. She has recently undergone a revival, and eight months ago Mark read In a Summer Season, her last novel, generally considered her finest, and suggested it with great enthusiasm.

Accordingly, he introduced it to our group in glowing terms. The novel charts the events over one summer concerning a wife in her forties and the members of her household, and circles around the question of love and its relation to sex. Previously widowed, the well-off Kate is still living in the same family home in the Thames valley with a new husband, Dermot, ten years her junior, her son Tom, who is not much younger than Dermot, and a spinster aunt, Ethel, while sixteen-year-old daughter Louisa appears from boarding school in the holidays. This family setup, unusual in the upper-middle-class society of the fifties, has caused something of an (understated) scandal amongst Kate's former neighbourhood acquaintances, and Aunt Ethel's letters to her friend Gertrude are full of (guardedly) salacious speculations about the married couple's sex life. Much of the speculation about the marriage in the village is doom-laden, and it is clear from the very start that Dermot is feckless - a fact that Kate is at pains to gloss over to herself and others, protecting him like a child - and very soon that he is a layabout and drinker. Much of the novel is concerned, in Taylor's characteristic understated style, with Kate's struggle between her own sexual capitulation to Dermot and the competing conventional requirements of her role as a wife and mother. The novel's inciting incident is the return from abroad of a widower friend and neighbour, Charles, and his young adult daughter Araminta, which causes complications within the family and finally leads to a tragedy.

Mark said he really admired the writing and the acuity of the depiction of fifties upper-middle-class society, and in particular the insight into the complex psychology of the characters provided by a third-person narration which is both gently ironic yet, in a free-ranging way, enters, at one time or another, the heads of most of the characters. These are the things for which Taylor is indeed generally admired, but unfortunately, and to my great surprise, for four of us present, John, Doug, Clare and me, these qualities couldn't compensate for other aspects of the book which led us, frankly, to find it tedious.

Firstly, there was the matter of structure. Taylor is on record as saying that she had no interest in plot, and we did indeed find the book lacking in form to an extent that made it unengaging. It is quite some way into the book that the inciting incident occurs, and before that the (acutely depicted) events seem there for nothing more than to portray the setup. Kate visits her mother-in-law in London and defends Dermot from his mother's criticism, and, watching the wives meeting their husbands from the train while back home the potatoes are on simmer, wonders if this is really the life that women should be leading; Kate and Dermot go drinking and Dermot encounters the prejudice of the former friends of Kate's late husband; Aunt Ethel discusses the couple in her letters to her friend and plays music with schoolgirl Louisa; we accompany Tom to the factory where he (unwillingly) works for his grandfather, and which he is expected to take over one day; Louisa hangs around the local curate with whom she is in love. Long before Charles and Araminta appear on the scene (and even for some time after it, before the complications get going), I was thinking, Oh no, not another cocktail before dinner! It was hard for a very long time to work out what the novel was about. John noted something else, a seeming lack of care in the revelation of information: Taylor writes, he said, as if she is talking to a friend who knows her and already has the background information (which the reader has not.) For instance, on her journey back from Dermot's mother-in-law, Kate encounters one of the young girls who are interested in her son Tom, who, discussing the plight of those girls like herself who have large feet, asks, 'Doesn't Lou despair?' This is the first-ever mention in the book of Louisa, whose attitude to her own big feet Kate goes on to muse about, but it is several lines into the paragraph before it starts to becomes clear - though not in fact entirely certain - that Louisa must be her daughter. I also felt that, despite - or perhaps because of - Taylor's lack of interest in plot, after such a length of seeming plotlessness, the book suddenly jerks into plot in a way that seems overdramatic and even artificial. And as for the final chapter, a kind of coda in which the tragedy is overturned with a (somewhat low-key) happy ending, everyone agreed that they had seen it coming all along.

Secondly, Doug said he found really irritating the way that the narration moves without warning from the viewpoint of one character into that of another, quite often within a single paragraph so that, now and then, for a moment you don't even realise the viewpoint has changed - and I'm afraid it struck me as inept and amateur.

We did agree with Mark that for a book written in the fifties by a middle-class woman about middle class mores, it is striking in tackling the emotional impact of sex (and for which the book is renowned). At one point Kate, having been to bed with Dermot in the afternoon, is called by him into the privacy of the dining room, away from the rest of the family:
He shut the door behind her and pressed her close to him as he did so.
'It will all begin again,' she thought in a panic, and felt tired and light-headed with desire. She gave him a quick, dismissing kiss and turned away. While he was fetching her a drink, she sank down on the window-seat and closed her eyes, as if she had come downstairs for he first time after a long illness and had found herself too weak for the effort.
'We should leave our lovemaking till the dead of night' she thought. 'and bury it secretly in sleep.'

Ann was the one other person present who liked the book. Like Mark, she relished its acute depiction of that society, and particularly the way that Taylor makes digs at it in every direction, letting no character off scot free, which for Ann, as for Mark, made the formlessness acceptable. For Doug and me, however, and I think for Clare and John, the irony was not nearly savage enough to make the material palatable, or the lack of story arc beside the point. As John said, Muriel Spark would have made something much more sparky out of this material and situation.

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

Friday, October 04, 2019

Mechanics' Institute Review - The Climate Issue

Here's the magnificent new issue of The Mechanics' Institute Review, in which I'm delighted to have a story, 'Dreaming Possibility'. This issue is themed around the subject of climate. As a writer I'm not normally keen on themed anthologies - I'm always too busy doing my own thing to have space to respond to other people's thematic agendas (I don't know if that's arrogant!). But climate and the environment are subjects I'm fired up by anyway, and which constantly surface in my writing, so it was no hardship - indeed it was an exciting pleasure - to sit down and write a story to submit specifically to this anthology. It's a story about intuition and magical thinking, and features a Cassandra-like narrator who has intuited environmental disaster from an early age and has been treated as pathological as a consequence.

The Creative Writing department at Birkbeck University, who publish the Review, organised a lot of activities around the publication of this launch - for the authors there was an enjoyable workshop for brushing up skills in reading work to an audience, a party for all the contributors and editors, and finally the official launch in the amazing eighteenth-century Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury (which is unfortunately threatened, and there's a campaign to save it). There are also three Citizens' Assemblies during October, on the subject of climate change.*

Here I am at the party with fellow contributors David Wakely, Tarquin Landseer and Sarah Barr, all of us clutching our newly-minted copies.

*Due to unforseen circumstances these Assemblies have now been cancelled. It is hoped they can be reconvened in the spring as a one-day symposium/conference.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Keeping track on stories

Last autumn I wrote here about a new story exploring the question of gender which was prompted by my reading on embryology and intersex. That story, 'Double Helix' has now been taken by The London Magazine - although I didn't even know it for a good while! It's never happened to me before, but I missed the acceptance. Needing to withdraw a different submission earlier this month, I went to the Submittable website through which many competitions, some publishers and magazines including The London Magazine now receive submissions, only to discover that 'Double Helix' had been accepted more than a month before - somehow I hadn't received the automatic email Submittable usually generates on acceptance (I searched through all my email boxes including the trash, but there was no sign). Since so much time had gone by and I hadn't replied, there was no guarantee that The London Magazine would still be publishing the story, but all's well that ends well: the story is coming out in the December/January issue. I am of course thrilled.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reading group: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Warning: Plot spoil. This is a novel of suspense (though we had some discussion about the nature of that suspense), but it's not possible to report our discussion without revealing the ending.

Shirley Jackson's gothic work sometimes scandalised, but fell into neglect before a recent resurgence of interest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Doug's suggestion) is a short novel, but is generally considered her greatest, written just before her death in 1962.

It is the first-person narration of Mary Katherine Blackwood - Merricat - one of the two daughters of a conventionally patriarchal New England family whose ancestors built a large house on land at the edge of the village, carefully fenced off from the 'dirty' villagers. The novel opens with immediate intimations of the weird - although eighteen years old, Merricat announces her name and age in a somewhat childlike manner (although her language will later turn lyrical and at times even intellectually sophisticated), muses the lost possibilty of having been born a werewolf (because 'the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length'), and gives us an almost babyish list of her likes: 'I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom.' She lives with Constance, she tell us, and 'Everyone else in my family is dead.'

She then proceeds to tell us of a day some six months ago when she made her usual weekly shopping trip into the village for groceries and to change library books. We know that this day was the start of some change or crisis in the lives of Merricat and Constance, as she tell us too that the library books she collected then are now five months overdue, and 'I wondered if I would have chosen differently if I had known these were the last books, the ones that would stand forever on the kitchen shelf.' The trip into the village is excruciating for Merricat - she both fears and hates the villagers, who fall silent when she enters a shop and stare at her from behind blinds, and in the past she has been taunted by the children. In the cafe, which she braves only out of pride, a male villager, Jim Donnell, is taunting in a menacing way, and seems to issue a threat to Constance.

We soon find out what's behind all this, though it is not through the explicit narration of Merricat, who clearly suppresses it and with whom Constance has a tacit pact not to discuss or even mention it. We discover in the course of Merricat's progress through the village and home that at this time an invalid uncle, Julian, also lives in the big house with the sisters. Every so often, the wife of one of the other landed households, Helen Clarke, comes to tea - an apparently fraught occasion for the insular sisters, especially Merricat - and her visit is due later in the day of Merricat's trip to the library. This time she dismays them by bringing another woman, Mrs Wright, and Mrs Wright is indecently interested in an event which - we are starting to understand - concerned the deaths of the rest of the family. (Mrs Wright has come wearing black, thinking that 'perhaps it was appropriate'.) Uncle Julian, it turns out, is trying to write about that event, and is thus eager to answer the questions of the taboo-breaking Mrs Wright. Thus, along with Merricat and Constance sitting in another room, we listen to his account of what happened: six years before, Merricat's and Constance's parents, an aunt and another uncle died of poisoning at the Blackwood dinner table, arsenic having been added to the sugar they put on their blackberries. Uncle Julian, who had also been present, was the one survivor, the poisoning being the cause of his invalidism. Because Constance had been doing the cooking, because she was the only one who did not take sugar on her blackberries (twelve-year-old Merricat had been sent to her room without dinner, for bad behaviour), and because she washed out the sugar bowl after the deaths, she was tried for murder. However, due to a lack of hard evidence - and in spite of her saying at the trial that 'they deserved to die' - she was acquitted. (After all, as Uncle Julian says, Constance had never liked sugar on her berries.)

The villagers, however, clearly believe that Constance is guilty and she dare not go into the village, but is confined to the house and her kitchen garden and her cooking (and to looking after the younger Merricat and their uncle), and it is Merricat who must go into the village and brave the villagers' ire.

Doug introduced the book by saying how gripping and suspenseful he had found it, but both he and I agreed that the suspense did not lie in the matter that Uncle Julian is trying, with his damaged brain, to unravel: who actually did the killing. We both thought that was pretty clear from very near the start. For one thing, Constance is not at all the kind of person to commit such an act: she is eternally kind and caring to both Julian and Merricat, and, as Mrs Wright says to Julian: ' "I cannot seem to remember that pretty young girl is actually - well." ' Secondly, as Merricat walks through the village she has murderous fantasies:
I wished [the villagers] were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery one morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs Donell while she lay there.
Two days later, she tells us in a matter-of-fact manner, she kills a nest of baby snakes: 'I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.' (John commented that in his profession, Child Psycholgy, it is accepted that children who kill animals quite often turn out to be murderers.) And then there is her obsession with poisonous mushrooms, and as Trevor, who agreed with us, said: 'Well, you've only got to work it out: who else was there who could possibly have done the killings?' Plus the fact that there are certain things Constance will not allow her to do, such as handling food or knives.

In my Penguin edition Joyce Carol Oates refers in an Afterword to the consequent 'mystery' of why Constance is so protective of Merricat, and concludes from this that Constance was after all complicit in the murders. We didn't see it all like that. We thought it was pretty obvious why she should be protective of Merricat: there are plenty of hints that Merricat was abused by her family. Firstly, it is made clear that she was often sent to bed without supper as punishment as she was on the night of the murders, ' "in disgrace" ' as Constance puts it to Mrs Wright, and in the family's eyes she was a ' "a wicked, disobedient child" '. Helen Clarke comments on this in a way that we felt we were meant to take on board: ' "An unhealthy environment ... a child should be punished for wrongdoing, but she should be made to feel that she is still loved." ' In other words, we are to conclude that she was unloved by her family, and it is this significance we gave to Constance's words at her trial that 'they deserved to die.' It is also clear that Constance has always tried to protect Merricat, and compensate for that lack of love: ' 'I used to go up the back stairs with a tray of dinner for her after my father left the dining room." '

We can see why Merricat was punished. Arrested by the events of six years before, the sisters maintain their earlier relationship, with Merricat infantilised by Constance's continuing care. Although she is eighteen and something of a seer, Merricat behaves, and is treated by Constance, like the feral child she clearly always was, running wild among the trees on the family's land, hiding away in her secret den, burying objects to cast childlike spells. Thus we get the former picture of a strict, patriarchal father entirely unable to accept a strange and unconventionally wild daughter. At the start of her tale, Merricat fearfully senses a change coming, and so it does: a cousin, Charles, turns up and inveigles himself into the household, intent on getting his hands on the money that he thinks the sisters must have stashed away in the house. Horrifically for Merricat, he takes the place of her father, sleeping in his room, sitting in his place at table, and appropriating his belongings. Finally, like her father, he threatens Merricat with punishment for her feral behaviour, and the effect upon her is dramatic. She runs from the house and into the dank summerhouse where she normally does not go, and in a striking and, to me, moving scene, fantasizes her family sitting around a table adulating her.

Near the start of our meeting I said that I thought the book was about xenophobia, the fear and hatred of difference. The family clearly hate, despise and fear the 'dirty' villagers, the villagers resent, hate and fear the landed family, and the conventional, patriarchal family can't accommodate the difference of the wild child in their midst. After Merricat rids the household of Charles by tipping into the bin the pipe of her father's he has been smoking - another kind of spell - and unintentionally setting fire to the house, she and Constance board themselves away from everyone in its ruins (Uncle Julian having died of a heart attack in the aftermath of the fire). It is a perfect picture of xenophobia: they are safe and isolated from those they fear, and those outside now fear them them in turn, seeing them as witches or ghosts and leaving food to propitiate them, but they are of course trapped.

Mark now asked if we thought it was a feminist book. I hadn't particularly thought of it that way, and Clare strongly thought that Jackson had not been explicitly or consciously addressing the issues from a feminist perspective. However, the issue of women's power or lack of it emerges strongly from the book. As John, I think, said, the family would never have reacted to Merricat's behaviour in the same way if she had been a boy. At one point Mark had said that Merricat was clearly 'bonkers', but Merricat can be viewed as an example of the 'madwoman in the attic' - women designated mad for not conforming to the expectations of conventional and patriarchal society, and then sent more or less mad by their consequent treatment, and/or embracing and rejoicing in their own 'madness'. Merricat's spell-making may seem both childish and sinister, but it is after all the strategy into which the powerless are forced. Witchcraft is of course the name for the ways that the powerless - mainly women - seek to gain power (via herbal concoctions etc), and Merricat embraces witchiness: 'When we had neatened the upstairs rooms we came downstairs together, carrying our dustcloths and the broom and dustpan and mop like a pair of witches walking home.'

Ann was struck by the focus on food in the novel: Constance spends her whole time tending her kitchen garden and cooking, and adding to the preserves in the cellar laid down by previous generations of Blackwood women. Ann noted that it was a feature of the New England fiction on which she and I were brought up - Little Women, What Katy Did - and it is of course reflective of social reality, that the kitchen was the women's sphere. In this novel, however, food and the kitchen, the whole world for Constance and Merricat, is an imprisonment, and the poisoning at an ordinary family meal - via the traditional and almost picturesque dish of blackberries and sugar - subverts the notion of women as nurturers.

Most people agreed that the book had been a gripping read, but Mark said he liked it less after the arrival of Charles, when Merricat's introspection gets taken over by plot events. John thought that Charles was too much of a stereotype or caricature, though I personally had no objection to the portrayal of the character, who was rather, I thought, behaving in the stereotype male way that his society encouraged. John also liked the book as a whole less than everyone else, thinking it tricksy in its withholding of information, which he found distancing. I didn't agree. Merricat may be an unreliable narrator in that she withholds the facts about the murder, but I think we are meant to understand the facts of the murder in spite of her, and to know that she is understandably repressing them.

I did say that, although I had been thoroughly engrossed by the book, in retrospect I had one doubt. It is clear that the whole tale is being told by Merricat after she and Constance have boarded themselves up in the ruined house. Everyone in the group agreed that there is a sense of a long time having gone by since they first did so, as vines gradually grow up and smother the house, so that it is 'barely recognisable as a house', and the narration here has a retrospective mode indicative of much time having passed. Yet in the second sentence of the book Merricat announces that she is - now, at the time of telling - eighteen years old, the same age that she was at the start of the whole saga. I wondered if this were a structural error. Mark said, 'But did they maybe die in the fire?' Perhaps they were now ghosts, he was suggesting, and Ann added that ghosts don't know they've died and they stay the age at which they died. I was convinced by this at the time (and indeed, the cover of my edition hints at the ghostly) and by the fact that Merricat states her age so baldly at the the start and in such an arresting way that the anomaly didn't seem likely to have been unintended on the part of the author. However, the first page includes the clear statement: 'The last time I glanced at the books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue' - ie, at the time of telling, and after the growth of the vines around the house, the books are only just more than five months overdue. Fantastically quick-growing vines, then? Or maybe a ghost for whom five months and several years are one (but why five months)? Or indeed a structural error? As I said to the group, it all depends what you think ghosts can or can't do, or how they experience time. In any case, it is clear that to the villagers Constance and Merricat are like ghosts, and they do indeed live the lives of ghosts, helpless yet feared for their imagined power.

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

Monday, August 19, 2019

Cover for forthcoming novel

Well, here's the cover for my novel, Astral Travel, due out early next year. It's designed by Chris Hamilton-Emery and I absolutely love it - striking, and just right for the novel. Chris consulted me closely over the design, and I feel very lucky - and very lucky indeed to be published by such an inspired and stylish publisher as Salt!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Edge Hill Prize and other matters.

The Edge Hill Prize shortlist has been announced, and novelist Tessa Hadley (last year's winner), journalist and Galley Beggar publisher Sam Jordison and I now have six weeks to read the six books, and to choose a winner. It's a wonderful list, and I can't wait to get reading:

Three of these books, Mothers by Chris Power, Live show, Drink Included by Vicky Grut, and Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine are debuts. Lucy Wood appears on the list for a second time, and men make a stronger showing than in most previous years, with the list divided evenly between male and female writers. Very exciting!

I'm going to have to buckle down and make myself a strict daily timetable, as I've also been asked for a new short story and have promised to deliver it for the same deadline, and there's a lot of activity connected with my own current and forthcoming publications. I've done no writing in the past few weeks due to this last. Twice this summer I went away to Wales intending to write, and both times editing and publicity work took over. First there was editing for my story 'Kiss' in Best British Short Stories 2019 (now published) (not much, but once you start thinking about a particular story it pushes everything else from your mind, I find). This was followed by the pretty intense editing process that the Mechanics' Institute Review always make a point of providing (my story is 'Dreaming Possibilty' and the anthology, on the theme of climate change, will be published in late September). Meanwhile there's been a good bit of pre-publicity work for my forthcoming novel from Salt. The novel, Astral Travel, will be published in February, and we are at the stage of deciding on images for the cover - exciting, but a terrible responsibilty!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Reading group: The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

When people arrived for the meeting to discuss this book, they confronted Jenny, who had suggested it, by telling her that she had some explaining to do. They were, however, laughing.

We all admitted to never having read anything quite like it before, finding it puzzling, even  confounding, yet for some of us it was fascinating and compelling. In fact it was Jenny who seemed to like the book least, although Clare said she had given up on it and hadn't finished it.

Billed in blurbs as the work of perhaps the greatest Polish writer between the two wars, it's a story cycle set in Schultz's home town of Drogobych, and while clearly steeped in his own boyhood memories, is anything but realist: the whole thing is like a dream in which logic is defied and things transmute: rooms in houses are forgotten, birds fly across ceilings, a bicycle rises up into the sky and a man is turned into an electric bell. A key figure in the book is the father of the narrator, the owner of a fabric and tailoring store, who, after abandoning his store and retiring to his bed and suffering unidentified agonies (seemingly physical and metaphysical) embarks on a series of apparently crazy or fantastical projects - hatching exotic birds' eggs in the attic, corralling the housemaid and the seamstresses to listen to treatises on the souls of tailer's dummies (and other matter usually considered inanimate), and dabbling in the new phenomenon of electricty by persuading a relative to give up his body to become an electric commodity. Meanwhile he skulks in cupboards, jumps up onto pelmets and lies on the floor to watch cockroaches, finally appearing to become like one himself. At one point it appears that he has died, only for him to pop up later in another chapter/story with another scheme.

I said that, since the main protagonist is the narrator as a child, what the book is mediating is the psychology of childhood, which doesn't create the demarcations between reality and fantasy in the way that adult thinking does. This I think is why the book is so vivid - we all agreed that it had stayed with us. It really does have that dream-like wonder with which children apprehend the world. There is constant anthropomorphism - window blinds and shadows 'brood', weeds 'luxuriated quietly, glad of the interval for dreams'. I said that initially I had found this naif, but had come to feel that, again, it was a replication of a child's perspective, which doesn't differentiate so strongly between the animate and the inanimate. The book, as John said, is also about memory (and presumably its fantastical, dream-like nature). At one point the narrator says '...even at the time, I could not tell whether these pictures were implanted in my mind by [the housemaid] Adela's tales, or whether I had witnessed them myself.' One story justifying the notion that Schultz was specifically and consciously interested in psychology is 'Nimrod', an exploration, which I found exquisite, of the developing consciouness of a puppy that is brought to the house - though, in spite of its being more realist than the other stories, Jenny didn't like this either.

Ann however suggested that the book perhaps represented a different way of thinking and seeing the world now lost to us, and which survived longer in Eastern Europe, less influenced by Enlightenment rationalism than western Europe. For this reason she found the book fascinating, as well as for the picture it painted of the conditions of living in Eastern Europe in the twenties and thirties - the boiling hot summers and the dreary snow-filled winters - and its depiction of their psychological effect on the population. Schultz is quite explicit about that effect - 'Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom'; 'the old thick trunk of summer continues by force of habit to produce and from its moldered wood grows these crab-days, weed-days, sterile and stupid' - and about the fact that his father's schemes were an effort to triumph over them:
'The affair of the birds was the last colourful and splendid counteroffensive of fantasy which my father. that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defenseworks of a sterile and empty winter.'
I said that I had read an academic paper that took this further, arguing that the book was about longing for the transcendence that art gives an artist, and that the father's initial agonies are those of the failed artist (who can't transcend himself), and his schemes his doomed attempts to do so. Ann commented that this is exactly the kind of book that academics like to write about, open as it is to multiple interpretations.

John, as usual, pointed out the aspects of the book that we now find politically incorrect - the 'ragamuffins' hanging around the square, the descriptions of the resident shop assistants with their 'ugly' feet, the snobbish distaste for the more demotic parts of town and the 'scum' who lived there, and the 'thick, black blood' of its female shop assistants with 'cockroachy looks' whose 'overintense colouring' seemed to leave 'a dark trail of freckles, a smudge of tobacco, as does a truffle with its exciting, animal smell'. John found it strange that as a Jew Schultz should express such basically racist sentiments, but others noted that he was very much an assimilated Jew - there isn't a single explicit reference to Jewishness in the whole book.

Jenny, who seemed to feel that she needed to justify her suggestion of this book, said she had been made curious about it by reading of the fate of its author, and proceeded to tell us about it. Schultz was an art teacher in the local school, who apparently hated his job and had begun writing these stories piecemeal and sending them to a female correspondent, who urged publication. When the war began and he was confined to the ghetto, he sent further writings into the care of another, but they were subsequently lost in the Holocaust. While in the ghetto, he was 'protected' by a Gestapo officer for whom he had painted a mural. Unfortunately this Gestapo officer shot dead a Jew protected by another officer, and one day in 1942 when Schultz was on a pass into the Aryan quarter, that other officer shot him dead in revenge.

Somebody in the group commented that the author's story was more interesting than the book, but some of us said that, whatever we had thought of the book at first, we were very glad to have read it. It has certainly stayed with me and become part of my mental landscape.

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

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Best British Short Stories 2019 arrives.

My author copy of Best British Stories has arrived! Well, it arrived a few days ago, but I've been so run off my feet that I haven't had a chance to post about it until now. It looks wonderful, and I discover that the list of contributors I posted before (and which I copied from elsewhere) wasn't comprehensive, and one of the names missing is that of Ruby Cowling, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for recently publishing another story of mine, 'Consequences and Alternatives' in the Short Fiction Journal.

One of the things that's been keeping me busy is the questionnaire for sales and publicity that Salt have sent me about the novel they are due to publish in February. It's one of the hardest things - summing up your own work!

Friday, July 05, 2019

'Kiss' in Best British Stories 2019

Today Best British Stories 2019, which includes my story 'Kiss' (first published on MIR online in December), has arrived from the printers and is available to buy from Salt. Needless to say, I'm pretty thrilled at being in this prestigious anthology edited by Nicholas Royle, and can't wait to read the stories by the other contributors, Vicky Grut (whom Ailsa Cox and I published twice in our [discontinued] story magazine Metropolitan), Julia Armfield, Naomi Booth, Kieran Devaney, Nigel Humphreys, Sally Jubb, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Robert Mason, Ann Quin, Sam Thompson, Melissa Wan and Ren Watson.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Reading group: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Warning: plot spoil.

We all loved Richard Yates's first novel Revolutionary Road, which we read not long after this American writer, contemporary with Updike, was rescued from obscurity and republished in this country. As a consequence, three members of the group, John, Mark and Trevor, went on to read this, his later novel, the story of the lives of two sisters, the daughters of divorced alcoholic parents, a weak father and a flighty mother. Ever since, whenever Yates has come up in conversation, Mark and Trevor have praised it, suggesting that it's even better than Revolutionary Road, so last month I suggested it for our group discussion. (However Trevor didn't make the meeting, and there were only five of us there to discuss it.)

I did find it a compulsive read. There is something about Yates's prose, elegant yet direct, his way of getting straight to the heart of things and pushing on economically through time, that makes you read quite breathlessly, eager to know how things will turn out. As I said to the group, it's prose to die for, as is Yates's stunning facility of empathy. The only trouble was, ultimately I found it profoundly depressing - at which Ann nodded firm agreement.

The novel begins with this stunning statement: 'Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce.' This is followed by an extremely touching, indeed moving, portrayal of the two little girls on one of their infrequent visits to their father in New York, a headline writer for The Sun newspaper, and being shown by him around his workplace. Afterwards:
As they walked out across City Hall Park in the spring sunshine he held them both by the hand. They both wore light coats over their dresses, with white socks and black patent-leather shoes, and they were nice-looking girls. Sarah was the dark one, with a look of trusting innocence that would never leave her; Emily, a head shorter, was blond and thin and very serious...
 '... the Sun's the best now, right?' Sarah said.
'Oh no, honey; the Sun isn't really much of a paper.'
'It isn't? Why?' Sarah looked worried.
'Oh, it's kind of reactionary.'
'What does that mean?'
'It means it's very conservative; very Republican'
'Aren't we Republicans?'
'I guess your mother is, baby. I'm not.'
He had two drinks before lunch...
The book then traces in linear fashion, from the perspective of the younger Emily, the two very different subsequent lives of the sisters - Sarah's marriage to a man who will turn out to have beaten her, and Emily's own journey through relationships with one man after another, neither life ending well, as the first sentence states.

Mark was astounded that Ann and I, and John who agreed with us, should find the book so depressing. Weren't we uplifted by the wonderful prose, he wanted to know?  Somehow we weren't. This book is less satirical than Revolutionary Road (and therefore has less of the objective humour and tonal bounce), and it also lacks the same dynamic story arc, a point with which John strongly agreed. It seemed simply an extremely linear exposition of that first sentence, with each relationship of Emily's failing in more or less the same way that the previous had. I do agree that the depiction of each relationship was compelling, but I found that they added up to an overall flatness and air of predictability, and I could sense the author's own pessimism and sadness coming off the page like a miasma. (The events and characters are closely connected to those of the author's own life, as Mark acknowledged.)

Jenny said that she really liked the book, and defended it with the argument that many people do indeed have sad lives. I said that that's OK if all you expect of literature is for it to replicate life, but surely you expect it to do more than that, and once again Mark expressed the view that this book does indeed do more through its wonderful prose and empathy. Jenny also said, backed up by Mark, that she didn't see the ending as depressing anyway: that the book ends on a note of hope when Emily is taken in by the caring nephew who seems to be the one strong and positive character to have emerged from a devastatingly dysfunctional family. For me, though, having followed Emily through her aspirations (and brief successes), her need to be rescued in that way was utterly sad (and the rescue didn't, honestly, ring all that true for me).

Everyone agreed with Mark that, as in Revolutionary Road, Yates's ability to empathise with women is stunning, and his depiction of Emily's feelings and sensations during her first sexual encounter is almost miraculous in its truthfulness. I felt reluctant to say what I did next (but did): as a woman writer, I couldn't help wondering, however, whether the admiration in which Yates is held is due to his ability to empathise with women while at the same time keeping something of an objective distance (which as a man, as Mark said, he inevitably would). A woman writer would be more likely to tackle the women's viewpoints with more interiority - ie to make the reader share the experiences more closely (indeed I think I probably would), and would be consequently, I suspect, less admired. John jumped in and compared this book to Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, which the group discussed recently, in which Cassandra's experience is depicted right from inside her head. Ann had strongly disliked that book, as she had stronly disliked the very interior Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (which we also discussed), and she said now that she did indeed prefer the more objective empathy of Yates to that of Baker. John commented that in fact it made Yates's book, written in the seventies, more traditional than that of the sixties Baker novel. The book is also more traditional, he said, in the way that it begins at the beginning of the women's lives and follows them through in a straight, linear fashion, with a kind of steady accretion. By comparison the Baker plunges you straight into a crisis moment and you have to pick up retrospectively the history that led to it. Most modern novels operate in this way, and indeed most written in that era. This may, John mused, account for the fact that Yates's career was eclipsed by those of writers like Updike.

Ann now wondered whether The Easter Parade is in fact anachronistic. The sisters are children in the nineteen-thirties and Emily would have been embarking on her serial affairs in the late nineteen-forties and fifties, behaviour which seems more likely in the era during which the book was written, the seventies, when the pill became widely available, than then. We women also felt that there was a huge omission in that after Emily's first sexual encounter, seduction by a soldier who, without having even told her his name, immediately disappears, she does not worry for a moment that she's pregnant, a fate that would have been utterly devastating at that time for a woman about to go to university as Emily is, and a fear that we felt would have been routine at that time.

This led on to a much wider discussion about the past difficulties for women that some members had discovered young people now find hard to believe: the fact, for instance, that before 1999 a woman getting pregnant would have to leave her job since there was no statutary maternity leave (before 1944 a professional woman would have lost her job simply by getting married), and as late as the eighties women couldn't get mortgages without the guarantee of a father or husband. We wondered therefore if, even in the nineteen-seventies, Yates, writing basically autobiographically, had been working to update his material in a way that perhaps doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

We pondered the title, which as we read we found a little puzzling, since the Easter Parade, in which elder sister Sarah takes part with her new beau (later husband), occurs only near the start of the book and is a moment of promise and hope that is very much missing thereafter. However, that moment reappears in the form a newspaper photo of the event that Sarah has saved, a poignant and sad reminder of that lost hope and promise, making the title thus quite bitterly ironic.

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

Writing news.

The writing life is good for me at the moment. My big news is that next year the wonderfully dynamic Salt will publish a new novel, which of course makes me very happy indeed.

Meanwhile, to add to my happiness, two more short stories have been taken by highly respected publications. Not so long ago I read the style guide of a literary magazine (which shall be nameless) and it prompted me to write a story that deliberately subverted some of the writing rules it laid down. The result was 'Consequences and Alternatives',  now the featured story for June in the online Short Fiction Journal. It's an attempt to show how you sometimes need to break away from those old writing rules in order to make connections and to think in more radical ways, ie that more disrupted modes are sometimes necessary to convey life, in particular contemporary life.

There is a something of an environmental theme in that story, but I'm now at the editing stage of a story that will appear in the Mechanics' Institute Review print anthology #16, the theme of which is Climate, and my story for that tackles climate change head-on. The anthology will be published in September.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reading group: The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Once again I'm afraid it's a while since we had this discussion, and a lot has happened to me in the meantime (both on a day-to-day-living level and with regard to writing), so as I begin this report I'm expecting my memory to be hazy.

What I remember most distinctly is that Trevor, who suggested this book, talked and talked about how much he loved it, and we were all swept up by his enthusiasm until later one or two caveats emerged. Set in seventies south London (and later, west Kensington), it's the first-person narrative and coming of age story of Karim, the son of an Indian father and an English mother, and his negotiation through a  changing family situation and the changing mores of the time as his father leaves his mother for another woman, Karim's life becoming divided between three family houses, and as Karim tries to find his way in the world as an actor and playwright.

We all agreed with Trevor that the prose was wonderfully vivid and witty, the characters brilliantly drawn, some with searing harshness and others with touching compassion. Trevor spent a lot of time recounting the particular situations and characters that had tickled him, and we all fell in with this, and there wasn't really a lot of objectively critical discussion for some time. Then I said that I didn't feel there was much of a story arc (although I didn't particularly mind that), and others agreed, and someone said that that was perhaps linked with the fact that the ending rather petered out (with which others also agreed), without any real conclusion. I note that some critics have seen the book as a picaresque adventure, but that somehow wasn't how it struck me, perhaps because there really wasn't that sense of striking out and away into the world that tends to characterise picaresque novels - Karim is very much embedded in the communities that already surround him at the start - his own cross-cultural family, and their artistic and hippy-bourgeois neighbours, who indeed push and aid Karim into the theatre. (And indeed the title refers to Karim's father whose activities and behaviour set in motion the course of events for Karim.)

Ann noted the amorality of the book (which is not simply sexual - Karim doesn't have much of a conscience about anything for much of the time), and I said that I thought that that was a pretty typical attitude of the period. Others demurred, and reminded me about the saying that if you remembered the sixties you weren't actually there. This is true of course, but I do think it was an aspiration of the seventies, that attitude of overthrowing all the old moral shackles, by which many people tried to live their lives, however unsuccessfully, and that the book brilliantly captures that.

At this point Mark, who had been unusually quiet, spoke up. He said that although he had had the very same mixed parentage as Kureishi - and indeed has the same name -  he simply couldn't identify with the experience depicted in the novel. Growing up in north Manchester, at a later date, he had suffered the kind of racial abuse that seems only to glance at Karim, and none of the ready social acceptance and mobility, and we all came to the conclusion that the book really only depicts the cultural particularity of London at that time.

Ann (I think) also commented that the book was very apolitical - which I thought was another aspect of the insularity of the hippy attitudes of the time, though I don't think people were very convinced.

And that's all I can remember, I'm afraid.

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

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Reading group: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel spark

This will be a short report, as there was a unanimously positive verdict from our group (no argument to report), and it's a fairly light read which however we all enjoyed immensely.

It's the first-person retrospective account, given in the 80s (when the book was published), of a time in the 50s when narrator Nancy Hawkins was a young publisher's assistant living in Kensington lodgings alongside an assortment of odd-ball and interesting tenants. Although only twenty-eight years old at the time she is referred to as 'Mrs Hawkins' by everyone, due to her status as a war widow, her comfortable physique, her comfortingly straightforward attitude and her tendency to give wise advice. Partly due to her straightforwardness, however, and partly due to her decision, in the course of the novel, to rebel against this profile and lose weight, her home and work life become entangled, in a plot which takes on something of the whodunnit.

We all agreed that the plot (which it would be egregious to give away here) was quite preposterous, but none of us minded in the least, as the delight of the novel was in the voice and personality of the narrator (and, indeed the advice she gives), the wonderful elegance and economy of Spark's prose style (it's a shortish novel, and people marvelled at what she had managed to pack into its pages), Spark's wit, and the evocative portrayal of a world which has gone, some characteristics of which however linger on in modern publishing. (At one point a publisher interviewing Mrs Hawkins tells her: " 'Yes, many of our staff here are in fact fairly interested in books.' " )

Although we deemed the book to be light, we did note that among all of this drollery and outrageous plottery, Spark does touch on some serious issues: beyond the central theme - which is literary pretension - bubble McCarthyism, the status of Polish immigrants in Britain after the war, illegitimate pregnancy, and poverty and the impact of the welfare state and free education.

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Reading group: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Due to my second stinking cold of the winter, I was absent when this book was discussed by our group, which I was sorry to be, since I very much enjoyed the book - better, it seems, than most others in the group - and the discussion was clearly an interesting one. John has kindly written up the discussion, and I reproduce his report below, and I'll maybe add some comments of my own afterwards.

Perhaps first, though, I should say a bit about the book. Published in 1962, it opens as Berkeley University graduate student Cassandra sets out for home in the foot of the Sierra hills and the wedding of her identical twin, Judith. For Cassandra Judith is her alter ego, and it soon becomes clear that she is struggling psychologically with her sister's imminent marriage. The book is narrated chiefly by Cassandra, but a short yet not inconsequential section is narrated by Judith.


Mark chose this book, and mentioned its solipsism when he put it forward.
Spoilers are required. The title gives the game away a little, it’s no surprise that someone gets married, but if you want to come fresh to this book don’t read this, or the blurb, or the biographical notes on the author.
At the meeting Mark introduced the book almost with an apology. He admitted he had tried to read it some years earlier. He had quite liked it, but had not reached past 20 or 30 pages. His attitude was that the first section of the book seemed very subtle.
However, the author was well known at the time of publication, 1962. And probably most people reading at the time did know a thing or two about the author, and perhaps came to the book with very different expectations than our own. In terms of events, the book was judged by the group in general to be slow moving, and retrospectively, at least in the first half, too subtle. There is a sense, if you don’t recognize the context, and the when and the why of the events, that not much is happening. Later, speaking for myself, I realized how much subtle information was being introduced. It was generally agreed that, in terms of its prose however, the book was an easy read, too easy in that it was a quick read, making it too easy to miss important information, and did not seem deep.
One of blurbs called the book tragicomic. There was agreement that there are some good one-liners, but it certainly isn’t hilarious.
Ann said, bluntly, that she found the book very dated. I suppose I agreed in a sense. It was to me about a strange distant world. There’s a grandmother figure with traditional values, and as someone said, to general agreement, the others are rebelling against her – but it’s a pretty ‘middle-class’ rebellion. The father is retired, an ineffectual intellectual, but who also owns what they call a ranch. If it is a ranch it’s presumably run and managed by someone else – but perhaps they just mean a ranch house. A couple (from over the border) are living in a gatehouse and function as servants. The main family seemed more English than American. The wife is dead, and he seems to be drifting, and likes an occasional drink. None of them relate to the people in their town, and are like English gentry in this way. Doug said he found all the characters very strange. Someone said one of the main characters is ‘nuts’ – but others pointed out that all the other characters know this person is nuts.
Doug said the writing was brilliant, but he didn’t like it. One member of the group didn’t finish it, but said they had wanted to, just didn’t have the time. Everyone agreed that this meant missing the best bit.
The book is in three sections, divided between the voices of identical twins Cassandra and Judith. It was agreed that Judith, who comes in late, has ‘a real voice’, a different more factual voice, and gets on with the story. Whereas Cassandra is self-involved, living in her own head.
There are two outsiders, both doctors, and both, in their own ways, more part of the ‘real world’, the world outside the family.
Significant things happen, but early on I didn’t know they were happening. I don’t know much about weddings. I got it that the bride had a white wedding dress, but (spoiler alert) I didn‘t know that other female guests weren’t supposed to wear white, and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Another important event seems to be that a glass gets broken – I still don’t know what all that’s about. Perhaps they had a set of two dozen and with one broken they’ll have to throw them all away.
I imagine this book was well known at the time, and it’s useful to know the context. Dorothy Baker was well known, and could be said to be part of the Hollywood elite. She was married to a well-known poet. In 1938 she published Young Man with a Horn (about Bix Beiderbecke, a (real-life) jazz trumpeter, and one of the first famous early white jazz musicians.)  This was made into a film starring Kirk Douglas. In 1942 she published a book Trio, that proved too scandalous for the times, and a play based on it, produced by her and her husband, was quickly shut down because of protests. It is in this light, perhaps, that the subtlety of the present book should be viewed. The author was clearly a modern woman, had lived, and knew about the modern world but wrote the book in the early sixties, before the 60s really got started, and perhaps did not want to (again) create too much of a fuss. She died fairly young in 1968.
There was some agreement that the book was interesting, but not all that enjoyable. I said I thought the women in the group might have got more out of it, understood the mores better, but they didn’t seem to feel strongly about this.
The group in general liked the book in the end. I must admit I read the first half or so with some enjoyment, it did feel modern (considering the author was born in 1907) and interesting, but I started to wonder if anything much was ever going to happen. Plenty does happen; I just wasn’t alert to the clues.
If you’ve read this account I don’t know whether you might, or might not want to read the book. It is about women’s lives. The two women are very different. These women could exist today, though, as someone said, the characters reactions, and their society in general, would have been very different.
One member, Jenny, said she thought it was clear from very early on what was going to happen – quite the opposite of my own reaction. This certainly isn’t a gentle book in the end. When the new husband comes in towards the end there are some very dramatic and peculiar goings on...

EB: I have to say that I do agree with the rest of the group that the book (perhaps, as John says, because of the author's previous troubles) may be too subtle for its own good. I too missed some of the clues early on in the novel as to what was propelling Cassandra, thus missing some of the subtext, so that conversations and events seemed more mundane than I could see in retrospect they were meant to be, and nothing much seemed to be happening. I missed a crucial clue on the second page when Cassandra says that the bridge she can see from her Berkeley window 'took on the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless'. Since up to this point she has talked, in a zippy, witty tone, only about leaving early for her sister's wedding, I took this to mean she just wants to get out of Berkeley to the wedding as soon as possible, and even though in the next few lines she says 'my guide assures me I'm not a jumper; it's not my sort of thing', it didn't occur to me that she is suicidal. The realisation only came to me later, and when it did her behaviour seemed much more explicable, and she seemed a more sympathetic character. (I don't think this is plot-spoiling, as I'm sure the author intended us to realise this from the start.) In this context, the deliberate (and dangerous) smashing of the glass by Cassandra that John mentions is understandable, and the fallout of the incident indicative of the push-me-pull-you relationship between the sisters that is at the heart of the book. With reference to this last, I disagree with John that the book is about anything so anodyne as 'women's lives'. As I see it, it is rather about the more unusual symbiotic relationship between a particular pair of biologically identical yet psychologically different twins, and their difficulty in achieving individuation in adult life.

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

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Story in The Lonely Crowd

I mentioned in my post of January 8th that I was about to write a story that, unlike others I've written recently, wouldn't touch on any overt political issues, but would be about the difficulties of communication in personal relationships (and its potentially devastating long-lasting consequences). That story has now been taken by The Lonely Crowd (and only two days after I sent it to the editor, John Lanvin!), a newish literary journal based in Wales that has quickly established a significant presence in British literature, publishing literary heavyweights such as Niall Griffiths and Toby Litt. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to bits to be published in its pages. It's made me ponder the way we sometimes judge our own stories. In fact, after I had finished the story I hesitated to send it somewhere so prestigious, thinking it lightweight in comparison to my recent others. It just goes to show...

Issue 11 of The Lonely Crowd is due out on 25th March. (My story won't appear until Issue 12 later this year.)  You can preorder Issue 11 here.

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.