fcmalby

writing


1 Comment

Interview with Costa Short Story Award Winner, Avril Joy

I would like to introduce you to our guest author, Avril Joy. With a degree in History of Art and experience as a social worker then a teacher at Goldsmith’s College under her belt, Avril has travelled widely, and it was her experience of working and teaching in prisons which drew her to my attention, as well as her clear gift for short story writing. Avril is a wonderful person and a truly inspiring writer. Her short story, Millie and Bird, won the first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. download (3) You have travelled to India, Kashmir and Nepal. Is travel a key source of inspiration for your work and how does it inform your writing?

I’m not sure about travel exactly, although my travels in India and Sri Lanka do feature quite strongly in my novel The Orchid House, but place is definitely an inspiration for me. For me, an idea for a story or novel often begins with a place and then obviously I have to go in search of the characters. I’ve always loved reading fiction that’s rich in place and atmosphere. I think travel is for the naturally curious and it’s good for a writer to be curious about places and the people who live there. I notice that Asian characters often pop up in my writing. I do love going to new places – I’m off to Venice for the first time soon and will definitely be keeping a journal to scribble down observations and ideas – but I also think that there is a rich source of inspiration to be found in the places where we live.

How did you begin teaching and then writing in a women’s prison, and in what way has the experience affected you as a person?

I began teaching in prison when I came back from my travels. I took a temporary post, just because it was on offer, which turned into a lifetime (certainly in terms of prison sentencing!) commitment. It affected me deeply but it’s not necessarily obvious in my writing, although it’s always there underneath. I’m always drawn to people, especially women, living on the margins, or in their own internal prison. Invisible lives interest me, the lives of those who have no voice. I learned a lot from the women in prison about freedom and survival, about laughter, and about not feeling sorry for yourself. There’s a great deal of pain inside a women’s prison but also a surprising amount of fun and also friendship which I’ve written about in my long short story (on Kindle), When You Hear the Birds Sing. I met the author Wendy Robertson in prison when she was appointed Writer-in-Residence. We struck up a great working relationship and ultimately a lasting friendship. She was the first person to encourage me. She told me I could write and in many ways that changed my life.

What drew you to Literary Fiction in particular?

I think this was simply a result of my life as a reader. I’ve always read and loved Literary Fiction and Poetry, so it was natural for me to write in a similar way.

You won the very first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. What is it about short fiction that many writers often love or fear?

What I love about writing a short story is that it allows you to experiment, to try different voices, to use language not so much as a vehicle for narrative but for its own sake, although simplicity and clarity are what counts. I love the intense nature of the short story and it’s ambiguity – the way you leave space for the reader to bring their experience and imagination to the piece. You have a chance with a short story to make it as perfect as you can. What I fear is that writing which is not good enough will be immediately exposed, it’s a very unforgiving form. Also for me I am often afraid that there isn’t enough of a story there and I’m not good at quirky or different and I can’t really do funny which I think is a real skill. I think perhaps my stories are too quiet for some taste but then those are probably the kind of stories I like to read.

What advice would you give to new writers in terms of publication and entering competitions?

I think competitions are great for getting work published or anthologised, also submitting to magazines and for this reason I feature opportunities for both in my free weekly newsletter which anyone can sign up for on my blog. It’s important to think about the particular competition you are entering or magazine you’re submitting to and to look at what they’ve chosen or published in the past, they often have a house style. Also make sure you follow the rules, but my best advice is to write the story you want to write and try to make it, in Nadine Gordimer’s words, ‘burn a hole in the page.’ The reader has to be affected or moved in some way by your story. Oh yes, I should also say, make the beginning good, draw the reader in. How to do all this? Learn from the best by reading the best.

Your blog posts are informative and inspiring, what have you gained from blogging?

I’ve been blogging for more than five years and in that time it’s given me a great sense of audience and helped develop my writer’s voice. I love that you can just hit publish and your words are out there, and this sustained me when my work was not being published. It’s also been a great place to celebrate mine and others’ successes. Blogging makes you a good editor and if you blog regularly it means you exercise the writing muscle. Also blogging has allowed me to share my experiences as a writer, both the ups and the downs, and maybe, I like to think, help or inspire others – once a teacher always a teacher I guess, it definitely fulfils that need in me.

The new short story collection, The Story: Love, Loss and the Lives of Women: 100 Great Short Stories, edited by Victoria Hislop, is out as an eBook with the hardback edition newly released on 26 September. Can you tell us about the collection?

It’s a wonderful collection of 100 stories written by women, selected by Victoria Hislop. I still can’t quite believe I’m in the anthology along with queens of the short story like Alice Munroe, Helen Simpson, Angela Carter, Katherine Mansfield… the list is remarkable. Of course my inclusion is down to winning the Costa which has given my writing a huge boost and a brought me a whole new audience and I’m very grateful for that. As well as being a cornucopia of stories the collection has a great introduction on the selection process, the nature of short story writing and what makes a good story. I think it would make a thoughtful and lasting gift for readers and writers alike. There is something for every taste here. Although I’ve been reading the collection on my Kindle, marvelling at one brilliant story after another, I’m most looking forward to getting my hands on the book itself in hardback, images (9) Featuring two centuries of women’s short fiction, ranging from established writers like Alice Munro and Angela Carter, to contemporary rising stars like Miranda July and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, this is the biggest and most beautiful collection in print today. Handpicked by one of the nation’s favourite novelists, Victoria Hislop – herself a great writer of, and champion for, short stories – and divided thematically into collections on love, loss and the lives of women, there’s a story for every mood, mindset and moment in life. CONTRIBUTORS INCLUDE: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Daphne Du Maurier, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Katherine Mansfield, Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. Special promotional price to celebrate the short story (limited period).

Avril’s collection of short stories, Millie and Bird and Tales of Paradise, will be published in 2014 by Iron Press. You can find Avril at www.avriljoy.com


8 Comments

The Joy of A Bookshop

SFGR-bookshop-photo

There are current and heated debates about paperbacks versus eBooks in every crevice of the book-loving community, and for good reason. Some fear the closure of many and, possibly in the future, all bookshops, but I believe and hope that this will not be the case. I posted a while about about library finds and old books and the pleasure of finding a unique or out of print book. I want to delve into what it is about bookshops that give people so much joy. I promise to balance this by looking at eBook purchases and the benefits of this in another post.Bookshop-Window

In my years of living in London I spent many hours in Waterstones and Borders (admittedly now closed in the UK) scanning bookshelves and sinking into a seat with a stack of books to skim before buying. The feeling of being surrounded by books gives me a sense of calm and brings with it a dose of quiet anticipation, a hope that I will stumble across something brilliant. Recommendations are wonderful, and I often go in search of specific books, but I love finding something fresh and unexpected, picking up a book by a new author who I have not previously heard of, and sinking into an unexpectedly good story.

images (8)

The look and feel of a book cover appeals to me aesthetically, it says something about the nature of the book and the author; it provides just enough of a taster to know what to expect of the book in terms of genre and style. I really appreciate striking and unusual cover design and, as much as you can see the thumbnail image online, it is never quite the same experience as holding the paper between your fingers.bookshop

I love the scent of the paper and the physical turning of the pages, the ability to flick back and forth. I like to see books on a coffee table and the spines of the jackets on bookshelves. I enjoy the colours and the graphics. It is a pleasure that I miss when reading an eBook (and I do also read many eBooks).

venice

Physical books, for me, hold a nostalgic quality and stimulate my senses in a way that eBooks don’t. I often buy hard copies of books that I have read and particularly enjoyed on kindle, just to be able to keep a physical copy. I like to keep classics and travel books in paperback or hardback. I will never tired of the experience of bookshops and I hope that eBooks and paperbacks will continue to live in relative harmony and without the need for a fight.

I’ll leave you with a look at more bookshops and reading spaces and this short video:

Photo credits:

foxedbooks.com, aprettybook.com, bookmania.me, global.oup.com, artstheanswer.blogspot.co.uk


4 Comments

Breaking The Rules

Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.

alison

‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.

Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.

Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.

So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?

I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?

These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.

I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.

To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.

Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.

‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’

Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize.  Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012.  Her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

download (2)

Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’

You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com

 


4 Comments

Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

 images (6)

‘I REMEMBER EVERYTHING. MEMORY FILLS MY BODY AS MUCH AS BLOOD AND BONES. 

This is Mary. A mother whose son was taken from her and lost to the world. A woman who lives now in exile, watched by those who seek to preserve the sanctity of her son’s memory. But Mary’s recollections of his difficult life and tragic death are a truth that few who knew her son now recognize. As the myths grow around her like walks, so Mary clings to the truth, revealing, in a time of turmoil and profound change, her own fragile humanity.’

I was intrigued by Colm Tóibín’s novella, given the controversial subject matter and read it in one sitting – 104 pages in its entirety. A fictional account of Mary’s loss of her son on the cross and of her doubts surrounding the miracles and the disciples, it delves into the nature of her fear and confusion. It is a brave attempt to fill the gaps in one of the greatest stories of history and daring in its openness, in its raw uncovering of the destructive nature of loss and what it can do to a person. The Testament of Mary has a beautiful, almost dream-like quality and the depiction of Mary’s grief, of her anger and distrust, is striking, powerful and at times shocking. Yet I could begin to relate to aspects of her pain and understand some of her crippling doubts. Tóibín’s use of language is poetic and lyrical keeping the reader absolutely engaged. There are times when the mind often drifts as you read but this book draws you in and holds you tightly in its grasp until the author releases his hands with the final words that ‘words’ in themselves ‘matter.’ My only wish would be for greater detail in the scenes to plant the reader in the picture and the events as they unfold, but the book remains firmly inside the mind of Mary as she waits for the inevitable to approach.

There is an otherworldly feel to the narrative and an ethereal quality that links cleverly to the context of the book. An inherent darkness seeps into the words, leaving you with the sense that this could almost have been a psychological thriller. Literary it may be, but it has the power to almost transcend genres through thriller, literary fiction, biographical non-fiction. It is difficult to draw the line. There has been less opposition to the book than might be expected and for good reason; the fact that it is a fictional representation of a biblical story leaves the pages open and ripe for an author of great talent to sensitively explore what it might have been like for a Mother to lose a son in the most graphic and torturous of methods. The detail in the crucifixion scenes is just enough and it is not overwritten. The claim that he was the ‘Son of God’ is not the focus of the book and it is interesting that his name is never used, instead we are taken to the core of a Mother’s memories of her child as a baby and of the cold distance between them now, and her excruciating powerlessness as he is placed into the hands of his enemies.

An utterly absorbing and memorable read. It is not difficult to see why this has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This is Tóibín’s third Booker nomination. He was awarded the Costa Novel Award in 2009 for Brooklyn and has received numerous other awards and a Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlisting for The Empty Family in 2011. A gifted and enthralling writer. 

Listen to an excerpt of The Testament of Mary narrated by Meryl Streep.


4 Comments

The Chemistry Between Writer and Reader

trish

This is a guest post by Trish Nicholson. I first discovered Trish because of her blog posts on writing and the connection between the reader and writer. Her love of travel resonated with me and her approach is unique. Writing has always been an important part of her life, contributing to columns and features in national media, and books on management, and anthropology. Several of her short stories have won prizes in international competitions and been published in anthologies.

Trish is a social anthropologist and a keen photographer who has worked and travelled in over 20 countries, including extensive treks in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. She has an MA in Anthropology and an MSc in Rural Development. In 1997 she was awarded a PhD from the University of the Philippines for research on culture and tourism in Mogpog, Marinduque Island. Her work has taken her from the UK and Europe to Vietnam, Austrailia and the Philippines where she researched indigenous communities and worked in the Philippines with Voluntary Service Overseas, and on to Papua New Guinea with the World Bank Development Project.

Now settled in New Zealand and writing full-time, Trish combines her passions for anthropology, stories, travel and photography by writing creative non-fiction, which she describes as: “professional research and experience narrated by a storyteller, whispering in the reader’s ear as they walk beside me.”  Thank you for your post, today, Trish:

Each piece we write is a creative expression from a specific moment and place within us, a unique presence, and I suppose we shouldn’t have favourites but most of us do. While writing Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, the chapter that brought me the most pleasure, and the greatest challenge, was Voice, Language and Dialogue. Although the whole book explores in various ways the relationship between writer and reader, this chapter stretched me to explain how that chemistry works through their distinctive voices.

Voice in literature is a fascinating subject rarely written about in depth, perhaps because it is one of the most elusive concepts in writing technique, so I am happy to accept C. F. Malby’s invitation to share with you how I visualise that relationship.

Everyone has a voice – the expression of who we are, our persona – but it’s not quite as simple as that because we are complex beings. We present ourselves differently to the various people we relate to – spouse, sibling, colleague, local librarian – not only in the things we talk about, but the words we choose and the gestures we use. We have a multiplicity of voices – what I have called a ‘chorus’, a personal ‘madrigal choir’.

Our writer’s voice is expressed most distinctly in the style of writing and the kind of stories we write, but also in the characters we create. We choose which of our voices to use for a particular piece, but for our characters, we have to become sufficiently familiar with them to write consistently in their voices – represented not only in dialogue, but in thoughts, actions and body language because these are all parts of voice.

Developing a character’s voice is a deliberate and careful act for which we draw on our own chorus as well as on our observations and general experience. None the less, both character voice and writer’s voice are partly subconscious and reveal aspects of the author’s persona; a feature picked up by a reader who brings his or her own ‘madrigal choir’ to the relationship and creates an individual interpretation of the story.

Among our friends and acquaintances, even people met for the first time, we recognise that we enjoy listening and talking with some more than with others, and we appreciate them in different ways. We may find what they say more, or less, interesting, but their ‘voice’ as we perceive it, also indicates their attitude towards us. Some people call this personal ‘vibes’. They can influence our thinking and even our feelings about ourselves in a similar way to a story that relates to our own experience.

Perhaps because of the permanency of the written word, this effect seems even stronger in the relationship between a reader and a writer when they meet in a story. Each reader responds emotionally in a different way, both to the author and to the characters, especially when an author allows readers to use their imagination rather than feed them with every detail.

But when I read a novel, I want to identify with the characters, not with the author. This is the crux of what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’. By showing character through all the aspects of character voice – thoughts, dialogue, gestures and actions – a reader can engage with them; if we are told these things directly, the author’s voice predominates and gets in the way.

Whether a work is fiction or non-fiction, readers react to an author, and create their own interpretation of a story, with the voices they bring to the reading. In Inside Stories I discuss this and other aspects of creative writing in greater depth, using short stories as illustrations because the voices are often louder and clearer in the intensity of literary short fiction.

As writers, we choose the voices we use to create a particular story, as readers we complete it through our own voices – and in each cases, it is achieved both consciously and subconsciously. This chemistry between writer and reader arising from prose is at the heart of writing, whatever the genre.

inside storiesInside Stories for Writers and Readers looks at the creative process for readers and writers and offers a unique insight into the different themes of writing and reading novels, short stories, fiction and non fiction.

You can connect with Trish via twitter or her website and find her other books here.


2 Comments

Swimming Home

swimming home

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is a book that has been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I managed to reading it, amongst other books, while I was away last week. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2012, I was expecting great things from this book and it did not disappoint.

As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe’s enigmatic wife allow her to remain?

Both the unusual cover and the concept grabbed my attention from the start and I knew that this would be an allegorical journey in many ways. Levy’s use of visual constructs and rich symbolism retains a powerful hold over the reader’s experience. The wording is lyrical and enticing, wasting nothing. She casually underplays the devastating story as it reaches an unexpected climax. It has been described as a ‘literary beast’ of a novel and, although initially skeptical, I can understand why; I would agree. Reviews have been mixed, understandably, as her style is highly specific and will not appeal to all. Her power to draw in and to shock is almost a surprise and I found myself rereading parts of the text in disbelief. She uses subtle repetition to great effect and the prose has a circular narrative in that it ends almost where it begins. The outcome? Well, you’ll have to read it and decide what you think. I would highly recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction and a short, sharp shock. I look forward to reading her newer short story collection, Black Vodka.


4 Comments

Creativity: What is it and why do we think it belongs to just a select few?

130423 Image With One of Arthur Koestler Quote...

130423 Image With One of Arthur Koestler Quotes on Creativity (Photo credit: bitesizeinspiration)

This post was sparked by an interesting article  I read at the weekend on Creativity by Ayd Instone, who has worked with Oxford University Press, Macmillan Publishers, a range of UK Universities and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Ayd has a degree in Physics and Physical Science BSc(hons) and has worked as a technical author. He is the author of four published books about creativity and innovation. In the article he discusses people’s conceptions of creativity and their misconceptions about what it is and whether creativity is born or made. The frequency with which the nature/nurture debate crops up led me to think about why people are so intrigued by creativity, and by whether we are born with a determined set of skills, or whether we  can learn to become creative.

When I was younger I was persuaded that creative types were dancers, artists, photographers and musicians. I didn’t even consider authors; as far as I was concerned, Enid Blyton and Judy Blume’s words magically appeared on the page without any planning or inspiration from the authors. I gave no thought to the process behind writing the books which I devoured over the years. As time rolled on, and my reading tastes changed, morphing through a selection of C.S. Lewis and John Buchan, Yeats and travel diaries, photography books and biographies, I left university to pursue a teaching career and I met creativity in the form of Lawyers, Scientists and, yes, even Accountants. We have preconceived ideas of what creativity is and who carries this illustrious concoction of innovation and ideas.

The reality is that we are all born with a degree of creativity and the extent to which it is used and developed depends on our focus. I have met photographers with great technical ability but little creativity or desire for creativity, and I have watched lawyers branch out into painting and music, or bring creativity into their daily working life. The misconception that creativity is only or a select few paralyses people into thinking that they can’t or shouldn’t try new skills, that they can’t bring creativity into their jobs and their everyday lives.

As a writer, creativity comes to me in the form of ideas and stories, but it is fuelled by how I choose to spend my time: reading, visiting galleries, watching films, travelling, collecting photography books and going to the World Press Photo Awards each year. The form it takes and the inspiration will vary from person to person, but what we choose to spend our time on will fuel how creative we become. It will feed our minds and grow and morph into something new. How are you going to spend your time?

For those of you who are following my short story releases, Skeleton Bunker was published today.