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Author Interview with Sarah Hegarty

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Sarah’s short fiction has been published by The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Cinnamon Press, Mslexia, the Momaya Annual Review, Hysteria 2, and on the web. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Fish Short Story Prize and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her second novel and is writer in residence at the George Abbot School in Guildford.

 

1. You have said that, ‘some stories will feel more precious.’ Which of your stories hold that place for you and why?

It’s a combination of the time and effort involved, and if a story taps into something difficult and personal. (Those are the best ones, obviously). My story ‘Something Hidden’ is dedicated to my sister, who died when she was a baby. Writing it was a way of remembering her and celebrating her life, which I was unable to do at the time. It was a long, slow process to uncover the shape of it, and to understand what I was trying to do. I love Stephen King’s quote – from his brilliant book, ‘On Writing’ – that ‘stories are relics […] the writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible’. Writing is definitely excavating for me. My story ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’, recently published in the MIR #14 anthology, is precious for a different reason: I wanted to show life in Beijing in 1980 – a world that has vanished. I also hope it gives voice to people whose stories have rarely been heard, particularly in the West. It took me years to wrestle onto the page, so I’m pleased it’s found such a good home.

2. How did you end up becoming a reader for The Brighton Prize, and what are you looking for in a good piece of writing?

I submitted a story, which didn’t make it, but was asked the following year to be a reader.

I’m looking for voice, first of all. A character I want to spend time with, who pulls me in, and makes me forget I’m reading: I’m just listening. I want to be in the story. Show me what your characters can see. Let me feel what they feel. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be curious about them. Keep the pace moving. And then – let’s have a satisfying ending. Not twisty – but an ending that illuminates what’s come before, and makes you feel, yes: that’s how it should be. Beyond that, I love to see that the writer has cared enough about the work to check for spelling errors or typos. Of course, this answer is much easier to produce than a piece of original, engaging writing! That comes from endless reading, and endless practice. So the other thing I’m looking for is evidence that the writer is a reader, who has absorbed the shape of a story through reading other writers’ work.

3. How do you adjust to the changes between the long haul of the novel writing process and short fiction?

Badly! When I’m mired in editing and re-drafting, there’s nothing more tempting than the idea of a 2,000-word story, neat and perfectly formed (at least in my head). Being able to work on the arc of a short story in one go is hugely satisfying. One way I keep going with the novel (apart from searching out deadlines that make me sit on my chair) is to see each chapter as a short piece. I keep endless lists, and charts, and tick things off as I go, to give an illusion of progress… I’m always curious to see what my characters are up to, but I’m very bad at giving myself time to sink into the world of the book. It was a brilliant boost recently to be longlisted for the Mslexia Novel competition. That’s been a great incentive to keep working on the draft.

4. How did you feel to be shortlisted for the inaugural Bridport Prize First Novel Award and how has it impacted your work?

It was a great feeling. I entered on the off-chance, and was thrilled to get down to the final five, out of over 1200. It gave me a huge confidence boost, and the impetus to get on and finish the manuscript. I was lucky enough to meet some lovely people at the prize-giving whose feedback also encouraged me to keep at it.

5. You manage to create great tension in your writing. How do you capture the reader’s attention in just a few short paragraphs?

Thank you. By endless re-writing! I have a terrible tendency towards throat-clearing although I’m getting better at cutting to the chase. Before writing fiction I worked as a journalist, and I try to report what’s happening so that the reader can be in the story; in the moment. ‘Keep Moving’ is a useful motto. But it’s all down to re-drafting; trying to be clear about the focus of the story; and giving it time to cook.

6. You run creative writing workshops for students. What do you enjoy teaching and what do you use as inspiration?

I love the whole process of engaging with students and hearing their work. I always enjoy workshops on character, but I’m happy to teach viewpoint, dialogue – whatever might be useful. I love being able to talk about the technical process of writing – the tools at the writer’s disposal, if you like – and then handing the toolkit over to the students and hearing what they come up with. It’s always interesting, and unexpected. I feel privileged when they share it with me.

For inspiration – all sorts of prompts, word games, challenges. I love using physical objects, as well as newspaper and magazine cuttings – anything that catches my eye. My stories have often been prompted by a visual clue, and I hope that works for my students too.

7. Who are your favourite writers or inspiring quotes?

Too many to mention! I love Lucia Berlin’s short stories. Sebastian Barry’s prose is perfect. One of the best books I’ve read this year was ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain:  a fascinating and poignant imagining of Ernest Hemingway’s life with his first wife, Hadley. It sent me back to his work with new eyes. I’m currently reading VS Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ about his Indian heritage and his life as a writer. And I’ve just started ‘The Dawn Watch’, Maya Jasanoff’s biography of Joseph Conrad.

The quote I keep on my desk is, ‘You get knocked down, you get up again. I also think writers must have great courage, the courage to trust your own life and your own voice.’ It’s from screenwriter Ashley Pharaoh, who co-wrote ‘Life on Mars’ (as well as many other things). It inspires me.

8. Can you tell us about the Mechanics’ Institute Review ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop?

It was organized by the editorial team at MIR, as part of the preparations for MIR Live, events around the UK where the MIR#14 authors read extracts from our stories. We learned how important it is to relax before reading. One of the ways to ‘loosen up’ was to lie on the floor, humming – a good ice breaker! We looked at the kind of extract that works well, read aloud: short, simple and clear. And we practiced reading – and breathing in the right places. It was a fun evening that gave me lots of useful ideas. I’ve written about it in more detail on my blog: www.sarahhegarty.co.uk  The next MIRLive events are in London (November 17) Birmingham (November 23) and Manchester (January 12). It would be great to see you at one of them!

9. If you had an opportunity to ghost write, whose biography would you choose to write and why?

I hate the idea of ghost writing. Each person’s voice is unique. I would much rather teach someone how to find that voice, and trust it – and then hear what they have to say.

10. Where and how do you write best, are there better times of the day, or helpful locations?

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops with a pen and notebook, and the intention to write, but I find other people too fascinating and distracting.  I can really only write at my desk, surrounded by photos, and cards from friends, inspiring quotes (see above!) and towering piles of books. The other place is Arvon. I’ve been lucky enough to go on an Arvon course, and it’s exhilarating and inspiring to sit at a desk overlooking a peaceful garden, mug of tea to hand – and nothing to do but write until the next meal!

I used to love working late into the night but reality kicked in with family life, and I tend to keep office hours. If I’ve got a deadline I still might creep back to my desk after dark. While the family sleeps I’ll drink endless cups of tea and stare in panic at the screen, and feel like a student again.

You can find Sarah at sarahhegarty.co.uk or @SarahHegarty1

 

 

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Author Interview with Anthony Black

Today I interview author, A. Joseph Black, from Carnlough, Ireland. His short stories and flash fictions have been published online in literary magazines and in print anthologies. His story, Just Thinking, is in Schooldays, a collection of poetry and flash fiction from Paper Swans Press, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Anthology. His long short stories By the Lake and Nora have been published as chapbooks in Australia. He has recently been Shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017.

  1. What drew you to writing short stories and do you have any key inspirations?

I should probably declare straight away that I’m not a person who feels they have to write, that they’ll die if they don’t, that they just don’t make sense when they’re not writing. I would use the analogy of snooker, rather improbably. You like watching snooker on the TV, so you ring a friend and begin to play for an hour every week at the local snooker hall. You enjoy it as an observer at first, then you decide that you might enjoy actually trying it yourself. And that’s the basis on which I started writing. Late in life relatively speaking, at 44, I just thought, “I should have a go at this myself”. There are writers I love, obviously, but I’m quite undiscerning in what I read, as I think many readers are. I just like good stories well told. I mostly buy books in second hand shops, where immediately there’s a “found” aspect to it – you haven’t gone there to buy a specific book – and as the reader I love the different dynamic that creates. The last four books I bought were by Katherine Mansfield, Michael McLaverty, Raymond Chandler and Nick Hornby, all second hand. Does that tell us anything? I’m not sure it does.

2. Do you plan your stories or do they evolve as you begin to write?

After my long short story first piece, I continued by starting to write microfictions and flashes, as low as 100 words. With a piece that short, you can’t have character development or a narrative arc. Most often the “idea” is a single point of light – a noise, a phrase, an image – and you just place that in a sympathetic, complementary environment, like setting a jewel. I could have some of those written, revised, edited and pretty much finished in my head before I ever put a word down on paper. Of course, that only worked with very short pieces.

By the time my stories had reached 4,000 words and beyond, like Nora and By The Lake, I found I was planning as a necessity. I find it much more time-inefficient to not plan, and I have to really fight for my writing time, so for me it’s “well begun is half done.” And now I’ve come to enjoy planning and plotting. And it doesn’t mean, in my case at least, that the story can’t still surprise you, change materially, veer off, as you’re drafting it. They absolutely still do that, and it’s a big part of the fun of writing for me. But I do now find it prudent to provide myself with an outline superstructure when I start.

3. Is there any advice you can share with new writers who might be thinking of sending their work to literary journals or competitions?

Just get the really obvious stuff right: familiarise yourself with the type of material they publish, respect the submission guidelines, and never submit anything until you’re absolutely certain you can’t improve it any further. Impending competition/submission deadlines can make for some poor decisions about the quality of your work, in my experience. Also remember that if you’re not generating copious amounts of material then you need to manage your subbing carefully, noting response turnaround times etc. You don’t want your work tied up for months in a competition or with a lit mag. Even just waiting until right on the deadline before submitting mitigates this. You can simultaneously submit of course but do you really want that plate-spinning exercise to manage along with everything else?

And be realistic, for your sanity’s sake: there’s no reason not to shoot for the stars, just as long as you’re not then plunged into despair when your second ever finished piece is rejected by The New Yorker or doesn’t win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

4. Your writing is very descriptive. Do you picture the scene as you write or draw from your own experiences?

I like to picture it, to feel it, smell it, listen – and I want the reader to do all that as well. Again, it’s a function of the type of books and stories I myself enjoy reading. I love good descriptive writing. And it’s kind of frowned on a little now, I feel. Looked down upon almost. Like it’s telling, not showing. And yet if you read Daphne du Maurier, who I think is fantastic, she describes things endlessly: natural landscapes, physical appearances, even the weather. But the story’s barrelling along and you’re right there as the reader, in among the sights and sounds, and it’s exhilarating. If I can even get close to providing that sort of immersive experience for my reader I’d be delighted.

Some contemporary fiction leaves me a little cold, if I’m entirely honest. Too often it feels like an exercise in demonstrating how clever or erudite the writer is, with little or no consideration for the reader’s experience. Much of is actually too intellectual and abstract for my taste. And the lack of defined endings! I suppose I’m steeped in a very orthodox Irish storytelling tradition, but when I read a 5000 word short story which just stops – doesn’t end, or conclude, it just runs off – I find that so infuriating. Like I’ve been robbed of the time I spent reading it, however well written it was. As a reader I  want a well-defined, narratively satisfying ending, and I suppose that orthodoxy is apparent in my own stories.

5. How much does the writing scene in Northern Ireland influence your work and are you connected with other writers or groups?

Haha, I would never be a part of any scene that would have me as a member! There is some tremendous writing happening in NI presently and a thriving litmag scene with The Tangerine recently launching, and The Incubator, who were first to publish one of my stories, and first to give me the opportunity to read my work in public, which I love doing. Staring your listener in the eye is a blast because most of the time we’re closeted away in our writing space.

So I do know a few of the writers and editors like Michael Nolan, Kelly Creighton, Ruth McKee from readings, and I interact a lot with other NI writers on Twitter. As well as reading them, of course (six months after their book has come out and I can find a copy in a second hand shop). But I don’t think I’m much of a “scene” person. I can’t do the rounds of book launches and what have you – I have a full time job and five children all pulling on my time before I even get to my writing time, much less “scene time!”

There is definitely something in the air with NI writing at the moment though. I don’t know if anyone has ever satisfactorily defined “a scene” but I’d guess that’s what it is.

7. You mentioned beginning to write later in life. How did it all begin and what have you learned along the way?

It really was most unremarkable. Having enjoyed reading all my life, I just wanted to see if I could actually write. About six years ago I searched online for a writing prompt and found one that said “write a story in which the two main characters do something illegal and something immoral, but the reader retains sympathy for them.” And I wrote my first story, “An Encounter” (the title being a nod to Joyce, which is of course mandatory for all Irish writers or they revoke your citizenship). I realise now that was probably the worst/hardest prompt I could have found, but I wrote the story, learnt a lot in the process and – crucially – I enjoyed it. So I decided to write another one.

I do think I approach writing differently now than I would have in my 20s. For example, I don’t really set myself goals – there are things I wanted to achieve and did, such as having a story in translation in a foreign litmag, getting into a print anthology, my own name on the front of a book. But I’m not on a mission. I don’t have that iconoclastic zeal of youth. I don’t feel I need to kick over the statues, unseat the establishment and reinvent the novel. I just want to produce writing that people enjoy, that takes them away from their everyday life for the brief time that they’re reading my story.

8. What are you planning at the moment?

I didn’t write a word for almost 18 months last year and this, then I fell off the wagon in the summer when I wrote a short flash purely for my own pleasure. Immediately upon finishing it I saw that the Bath Flash Fiction Award closed at midnight so I submitted it (I’d never sent them anything before, but then I hadn’t had serendipity on my side before either) and it was shortlisted and will appear in the print anthology later this year. I suppose that reminded me of how fun and interesting and rewarding writing can be.

So with my fast broken, I’ve since finished the first draft of the short story I was working on when I downed pens last year (yes, I actually gave up writing right in the middle of a story, although the specific story wasn’t the problem, it just all felt like it had become a bit of a drag). I’ve now planned out a much longer piece, straying into novel-length territory, set in 1950s New York City. It’s inspired by three Edward Hopper paintings. I always look at the people in Hopper’s paintings and wonder what their story is –  What are they thinking? Are they waiting on someone? Who? And then I thought, “Well, why not take some of them and give them that story?” So that’s what I’ve done: the main figures in Hopper’s paintings Nighthawks, NY Movie and Gas are now Eddie, Marion and Victor, my three central characters. It has kind of a “noir” vibe, and it involves a crime, but beyond that I’m not really sure how it will look or sound if it ever emerges. But that’s the fun of writing.

And for me, writing should be fun. Writers who complain about how hard it is to write are the worst! If it isn’t fun, then you probably need to do it differently, or stop doing it altogether. I mean, it’s not heavy lifting and you’re inside out of the weather almost all of the time.

You can visit him at www.ajosephblack.com or join him on Twitter at @a_joseph_black.


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Interview – Lecturer, Editor, Critic, SALT and Granta Author, Jonathan Taylor

jonathan-taylor

 

Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), and the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman, 2013 and 2014). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He lives in Loughborough with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind.

His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.

1. Your novels have been published by Salt and a memoir by Granta Books. You also write short fiction. Do you have a preference and how does your approach to each of these differ?

I write in lots of different forms and genres – short fiction, novels, non-fiction and poetry. Part of the reason is that I get bored easily, and, once I’ve finished something, I want to do something totally different. In the short term, that means something totally different to writing – like getting drunk or cleaning the bathroom. But given that getting drunk and cleaning the bathroom are fairly transient pursuits, I eventually come back to writing, in a different form or genre.

So the short answer is no: I don’t have a preference for any of the forms. In fact, I think our culture overrates novels at the expense of other forms – and that short fiction and creative non-fiction are often unfairly overshadowed by the weird fixation on novels (much as, of course, I love the novel form). Short fiction is actually going through a real renaissance, I think, in Britain – the sheer variety and vitality of what’s being written in terms of short stories is wonderful. It’s much more diverse than it was when I first started writing short stories in the dark ages of the 1980s. As for poetry, I’m sceptical of the ways in which it is both marginalised by our culture, and marginalises itself: too often, it is dismissed as irrelevant to people, and too often what gets lauded within certain enclosed communities really is irrelevant, at least in part. The best performance poets understand this, and speak directly to people (and hence get massive audiences). There are so many ways in which so-called “page poets” could learn from performance poets (and no doubt vice versa). They shouldn’t be separate things.

So I love all the forms I write in. My approach to them doesn’t really differ, in that I do believe, ultimately, that the forms all overlap: short fiction has a lot in common with poetry, especially in terms of style; and, in a theoretical sense, it’s hard often to differentiate creative non-fiction from fiction. Again, writing poetry, for me, arose naturally from writing memoir: poetry is often a kind of fragmented (shattered) memoir form. At base, all forms of so-called “creative” writing are also kinds of storytelling (even lyric poetry, despite what people claim). Homer, after all, was a poet, a musician, a storyteller, a “novelist” (in a loose sense), a performer, and (again in a loose sense) a kind of non-fiction writer (in that he treats the stories as though they are “true”). The same might be said of Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare: these writers do lots of different things at once. And Dickens is actually one of the greatest poets: there are passages of Dombey and Son which, though laid out as “prose,” constitute some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

2. I really enjoyed the short fiction anthology, Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud. As an editor, do you focus more on line edits or on content and structure; is there an overall theme that you have in mind?

I’ve edited work in lots of different contexts, but for Overheard I’d selected the writers myself for the anthology (rather than putting out a general call for submissions) so I knew I’d get good stuff! It makes editing much easier, of course, when the basic material is excellent. I’m a fairly “interventionist” editor, which I know can by annoying; but I’d want the same for my own writing. You can’t entirely ever, on your own, make your writing as good as it could be, let alone perfect: I believe you always need external advice and suggestions from someone you trust. Sometimes, as you become more experienced, those critical voices are internalised – so you have editors in your head, as it were.

At the moment, I’ve just started thinking about co-editing a new short story anthology, with the wonderful writer Karen Stevens. The theme came first: we decided (over a lot of wine) that we wanted to put together an anthology of ‘Drinking Stories.’ There are, of course, strong traditions of ‘drinking songs’ and even ‘drinking poems’ in many cultures – but we want to show how there’s also a tradition of stories structured around the pleasures and pains of alcohol. Chekhov famously likened the short story to a shot of vodka – and there’s a real and metaphorical and structural relationship between the short story form and alcohol. There are stories about drinking, and there are also stories which simulate the effects of drinking (including a wonderful passage in David Copperfield). The relationship between storytelling and alcohol goes back to Chaucer and, in other cultures, even further.

Having said that the theme is the starting-point for editing, I think the important thing is to choose a theme in which the writers involved can do lots of different things. The whole point of an anthology is diversity – so you don’t want to make people write in the same way, or produce something uniform. That’s the readerly joy of an anthology, the unexpected, the tensions and conflicts as well as overlaps between the stories within.

3. Your work has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award and the Saboteur Best Short Story Collection, and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud won the Saboteur Best Fiction Anthology. What do you think makes good writing stand out, and is an originality of style essential?

Oh gosh, I’m going a bit red now. But honestly, awards and prizes – no one can deny that they’re pleasant – but ultimately they mean nothing. They are purely subjective attempts to impose order and hierarchy on a contemporary writing world which (in the best sense) is chaotic and multifarious and packed with thousands of wonderful, jostling books. In a way, prizes can be a way of denying that wonderful multifariousness and diversity, of impoverishing literary culture. I’m not saying that’s what they do – just that that’s the danger of them, and people end up just reading what they’re told (by awards, publishers, bookshops) to read, instead of discovering the huge variety of what’s actually out there, over the horizon. Perhaps some of the best books are over the horizon, out of sight, hidden from public view. One shouldn’t just read what one is “told” to read – one should also read at random, books one happens across, books discovered in corners, books from unfamiliar genres, books with pretty covers or intriguing titles.

Obviously, it’s a big question: what makes good writing stand out? I wish I knew. No doubt, in many ways, I’m a stylist, and I do think “originality of style” is of vital importance, maybe primary importance. Having said that, I’m not sure what “originality” would consist of in that respect. Still, there’s something beautifully musical about good writing – it should sound like music, either out loud or inside someone’s head. Short fiction and poetry in particular are, I think, musical forms at root, using rhythm, melody and interweaving voices (for example, in fictional dialogue) in a way not dissimilar to Bachian counterpoint. For that reason, good fiction (I think – but what do I know?) is a place in which, as Mikhail Bakhtin might have said, different voices, tones, registers meet, interweave and clash.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the writing I love the most mingles comedy and tragedy, horror and beauty, laughter and pathos, sometimes in the same sentence. I’m currently writing an academic book about laughter and its close relationship with horror and violence in the work of nineteenth and twentieth-century writers like Poe, Dickens, Carlyle, Wyndham Lewis, Edmund Gosse, Shirley Jackson.

4. Where did your writing journey begin?

When I was ten I gave up wanting to be a train driver, Prime Minister, astronaut or James Bond and decided to do something much more difficult – that is, become a writer. It was only many years later that I realised – in retrospect – that this was, coincidentally or not, the same moment that my father started getting ill. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and an associated form of dementia. I wonder now if storytelling (and writing) is always about loss, or, to be more specific, always a poor replacement for a something which has been lost. In my case, it was an unconscious substitute for lost memories and histories. This is not to say that all writing and storytelling are forms of nostalgia – just that they are signs of a Fall, a lost world, fracture. That’s why so many writers are in exile, literally or metaphorically. In a wider sense, I think consciousness in general – which is, in the end, a kind of storytelling – is the result of loss, fragmentation, splitting. And that’s why, for many people, their earliest memories involve getting lost, or being separated from their parents. One of my earliest memories is of wandering round a big department store in Stoke-on-Trent, searching for Father Christmas. I didn’t find him, and ended up losing my parents as well. There’s some kind of allegory for life and writing hidden there.

5. As a Creative Writing Lecturer, how much can good writing be taught, or is it more a case of feeding a gift that has already taken root? 

As I’ve said on many an occasion, I believe all aspects of writing can be taught – or, at least, learned, which might be a slightly different thing. I suppose I’m a nurturist, and believe that there is no such thing as a “gift” in writing – nothing, as far as I’m concerned, which might be termed “natural.” This may be different for maths or music, where child prodigies do sometimes occur, but writing is an entirely artificial and learned activity. Hence why there are so few (if any) child prodigies in the field of writing.

Maybe all this comes from my own experience: I learnt to read and write very late (my father thought there was something wrong with me); and then it took me years, decades to develop my writing to the point of it being publishable (whatever that means). Each little step was painfully won. I’m amazed by some of the students I teach, who can write fabulously at 20: it took me years and years of effort to improve. And I’m not the only one – after all, many famous authors took to writing quite late (Joseph Conrad is an obvious example). Writing is crawling. Reading, by contrast, should be effortless: the writer puts all that effort in to make reading a straightforward pleasure for the reader. That’s one of the paradoxes at the heart of writing: writing is difficult, hard-won, in order to make reading a simple pleasure.

6. Can you tells us about your role as co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators? 

I set up Crystal Clear Creators in 2003 with Robin Webber-Jones. It’s an arts organisation which develops, records, produces, publishes and promotes new writing, both for radio and in print. We’ve done a lot of different things with it over the years – run workshops and courses, published anthologies and pamphlets, produced radio dramas and run short-term radio stations. So it’s all very varied. At the moment, CCC is involved as co-organiser (along with Nine Arches Press and the Centre for New Writing) of the bi-monthly Leicester Shindig, an open-mic poetry night which has become quite well known. Otherwise, I’ve had to step back from it for a couple of years – what with twins, a full-time job and my own writing, time is at a premium. Still, we’re hoping to run a new project in the next year or so, and relaunch the whole organisation. It’s a social thing as well: writing can be such an isolating activity, so working with other writers in forums like CCC breaks you out of that. Again, this is another paradox in writing: it’s a displaced form of communication, in which you speak to lots of people, but it originates (by and large) in a very lone activity. You write for readers, but you do so on your own in a shed or in front of a computer. Writing is a kind of displaced social activity – it’s an act of communication, a meeting place, on the page.

 

 


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An Interview with Vanessa Gebbie, Editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story

short circuit

Written by 24 prizewinning writers and teachers of writing, Short Circuit is intensely practical. Each expert discusses necessary craft issues: their own writing processes, sharing tried and tested writing exercises and lists of published work they find inspirational. Endorsed by The National Association of Writers in Education, it became recommended or required reading for Creative Writing courses in the UK and beyond.

I really enjoyed Short Circuit and can, without hesitation, recommend it to short story authors, whether a beginner or experienced. There is something for every level. While I gained great insight into the workings of the short story from each chapter, it would be difficult to look at each chapter and their author in this interview. I will endeavour to focus on the ones which had a particular impact on me and try to raise some key themes from the collection as a whole. Thank you so much, Vanessa, for taking the time to answers these questions. 

My pleasure.  I am so glad you enjoyed the book. 

Short Circuit is a wonderful collection of thoughts and ideas on the short story from a range of practitioners and experts, how did you go about selecting the contributors and themes?

I was very lucky – between 2006 and 2009 I’d met many wonderful short story writers at competition events, festivals, on the circuit –  and it struck me then that many who do well in the good competitions are well published (quality not quantity), and many also happened to be well-regarded teachers of writing. I knew the book I wanted to create – the book I’d have liked myself when I was starting out. I wanted each writer to share what fired them up most, craftwise, processwise. I had no intention of standardising the voice of the book – it was important that each writer should speak to the reader in their own voice, in their own way, after all voice is so important in short stories too.  I approached the writers I wanted, and they all said yes. They suggested the topics in the main, and there was hardly any duplication. If there were any gaps, I filled that when all the others had finished their chapters. 

In the introduction to the book, you share Tania Hershman’s words that the story will linger in your mind for much longer than it took to read it. This is so true of powerful short fiction. How does the impact that a short story makes on the reader’s mind differ from the longer novel or novella form?

Hard to answer that one in general, as it must differ reader to reader – I can only answer for myself. I think the impact of the strong short story for me (and it only applies to a really good one, I hasten to add) is something to do with the intensity of the whole experience. The compression of the form renders it deeply resonant, if I, the reader, am complicit. I have to be open to the experience, or the story will slide past and won’t do its work. Perhaps the power of story in a novel-length piece of work can lose its physical impact – as the reader has such a long time to get used to the whole world, the journey. It would not be possible to sustain the intensity of a great short story in a novel – either for the writer or reader, would it?  People are always seeking analogies for the experience of short story versus novel – the comparisons I’ve seen most often are physical. A brief intense affair versus a long-standing relationship. I’ll ask a question: Which makes the most lasting impression – which would you retain a specific memory of – experiencing a starlit sky for hours, or seeing a single shooting star? Simple, really. Both are lovely. One burns itself deeper onto the memory than the other.

Absolutely. I like the comparison between the starlit sky and a shooting star. Alison Macleod’s chapter on Writing and Risk-Taking encourages writers to take on a little more than they think they can manage artistically. She likens it to driving off-road without a map and suggests writers should never feel sure that they can pull off a short story. I liked this analogy because it is often how you feel when writing a short story, the sense that there are no signposts. How do you handle the risk-taking as you write?

I don’t – I mean, if it is being ‘handled’ then it isn’t risk, really. I think it is that sense of being on the edge, of the possibility of failing badly – which is the spur. Not having signposts is very important – I always wonder how I would write if I knew the story before I started – it’s rather as if I am telling myself the story as I write – if I know it already, why would I bother? I remember feeling ‘this is impossible’ as I was writing ‘Wei Ch’i’ – a very short surreal story in which I was just following an older Japanese man as he returns home at the end of the day to the flat he shares with his wife. He begins to find his wife in pieces, literally in pieces… but it is not horrific at all – rather tender, poignant, matter of fact. Had I stopped because ‘it was impossible’ – a really decent little story would not have arrived. I just had to trust that the story was going somewhere good and arrive there at the same time as the story itself.

Time is a theme which is woven through the book. In your chapter on Leaving the Door Ajar you refer to Dorothea Brande in suggesting that stories are formed in the unconscious mind, and that it is a question of trusting the process. You revisited one of your stories a year later, after a visit to Ireland, and called this a ‘gestation period’ for your story. How important do you think it is to let stories rest a while to enable character to form?

For this writer, it varies story to story, no matter what its length. Sometimes, a story will appear almost fully formed, complete with layers – and others will take a long while. It’s not only a question of character, it’s a question of what the story is really ‘about’ as opposed to the surface events. Perhaps uncomfortable themes take a while to emerge, while easy, uncontentious ones flow in a simpler, faster way. The story which is the subject of my essay in Short Circuit took a while, certainly. Maybe I was avoiding tackling a difficult theme, subconsciously? Who knows. But when I was ready, and it was ready, it came right.

I do know I used to grab hold of a story thought too fast – get it down before I forgot it, or I even shared the idea with another writer – ‘Listen, isn’t this a great idea?’ – and in both instances something was taken away from the work before I let it allowed to develop naturally. Time is probably one of my greatest allies – and at my age, one of my greatest enemies!

Graham Mort discusses the influence of the biblical parables, in terms of their difficult moral codes, and of African stories and oral tradition in his work. He relates the parables to some of the key building blocks in poetry; specifically, metaphor and allegory. How important do you think these influences are on a writer’s ability to develop form in their work, and do you see a link between short stories and poetry?

Well, they were patently very important to Graham in developing his work in all kinds of ways, his development of form being just one. (I know his chapter is about form, but it is so hard to winkle out one element and say what influenced its development to the exclusion of all others, really). For the writer in me,  influences such as the parables are also important and I’m now trying to articulate why. I think its because they are ancient, firstly, and I get a sense of tapping into a stream which underpins the development of the culture in which I exist. Their use of allegory is magical – very potent. Their use of metaphor taught me about metaphor very early on, practically, before it was named for me. Don’t we learn from everything that surrounds us? Surely. 

Do I see a link between short stories and poetry? Yeees, said with all kinds of caveats. It’s trotted out so often, isn’t it – every word counts in both, so there must be a link. Both can be short – therefore there is a link. Hmm. Perhaps the link really lies in the use of metaphor to explore an underlying theme in a short story, and use of metaphor to paint something that might/also means something else, in a poem?  Discuss! 

Great idea. Anyone? Strunk and White’s book, Elements of Style, provides useful advice for writers on grammar and sentence structure. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s chapter on Language and Style refers to their work and supports the advice on avoiding the elaborate and the pretentious, with the idea of using normal language. She suggests using short, more appropriate wording, according to the piece you are writing. Which books or authors helped you when you began writing?  

I’ve never read Strunk and White, I must admit. Are they right all the time? I think I’d be much too ‘aware’ of what they say is right and wrong when I’m writing, and I don’t want that. I want what is right for the piece of work I’m struggling with at the time – it may well not need grammatically perfect prose (if that’s what they advocate…). For me, the story needs to take over – if it all needs to be  in carefully constructed  perfect prose, then so be it – but if it doesn’t,  and has nevertheless been written to abide by all the so-called ‘rules’,  then the prose might stand in the way of the story. I don’t want that. For example – say a piece is written in first person, and the narrator is a young, hardly-educated lad from the wrong side of town. He wouldn’t use perfect constructs in his speech in truth, and if he did in the story, the vocab and grammar would render the character flawed, for this reader.  

I agree absolutely with the advice not to use pretentious words.  How often do I see new writers littering work with writerly constructs, thinking it makes the piece better – when all it does is wave a flag that says “beginner!”

Short or long sentences? Doesn’t really matter – the word that means the most is ‘appropriate’, in Nuala’s advice. Would your character use this group of words, would she think like this? If she invented a simile, what experience in her own life would she draw on?  How would she phrase it – not you, the writer…?

All writers help me. The poor ones make me want to write more appropriately. The ones who create work that makes me forget I am reading help me to try to reach those heights.  William Golding. W G Sebald. And a hundred others. 

vanessa Vanessa is an award-winning author and a freelance creative writing teacher. Her novel, The Coward’s Tale, was a UK Financial Times Book of the Year and Guardian readers’ book of the year. Her stories have been commissioned by the British Council, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and are widely anthologised. She also has two collections: Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning. Vanessa’s debut poetry publication, The Half-life of Fathers, includes a poem which won the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry prize. www.vanessagebbie.com


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Interview with Author and 1000words Editor, Natalie Bowers

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I met Natalie when my short fiction piece, North Norfolk Coast, was published online in 1000words at the beginning of July. 1000words publishes flash-fiction of up to 1000 words in length, written in response to an image. I have been impressed with the site and the quality of the work for a while. Natalie’s response to my submission was really professional and friendly, and I have enjoyed reading some of her own fiction (more on her work at the end of the post). I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview, so thank you for joining us, Natalie, and for answering some questions that I think authors often ask, or want to ask.

When and how did 1000words begin, and what inspired you to start gathering flash fiction?

1000words began in 2012 as part of the first National Flash-Fiction Day. I’d just finished an online flash-fiction course with Calum Kerr, the brains behind NFFD, who’d said he was looking for people to organise events, online and off. I’ve always had a secret desire to run my own fiction magazine, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to start one. I also love photography, so what better way was there to blend my two main interests and fulfill an ambition than by starting 1000words?

 What is flash fiction, for those who are new to the form, and how is it unique?

There are as many definitions of flash-fiction as there are people writing it, but for me, flash-fiction is simply a very short story. Although at 1000words we accept stories of up to 1000 words in length, I actually prefer reading and writing stories no longer than 500 words. When it comes to flash-fiction I like to be punched in the gut. I like flash-fiction to be short, sharp and to take my breath away.

 The idea of using an image prompt from the Pinterest page is very creative. How do you decide which images to use?

I go with my instincts. If I see an image and find myself immediately making up a story, I pin the image. I’ve pinned quite a few of my own photos on our Pinterest boards too, as I always have a camera on me and am constantly on the lookout for story ideas.

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There is a wonderful range of stories on the site. How do you chose what will be published, and what are you looking for in a piece of fiction?

Again, I go with my instincts. If the opening few lines grab me, I know I’m likely to enjoy the whole piece and will most likely publish it. What I’m really looking for is a consistent narrative voice. It doesn’t have to be a confident voice, but I need to feel as if the narrator is a real person and believes in the story they’re telling. I’m also looking for something special: a surprising simile, a poignant observation, a subverted cliché, an old story told in a new way, or a new story told in an old way. It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

Is there anything that will automatically send work to the rejection pile, and are there any submission tips you can share? 

There’s nothing that will automatically send work to the rejection pile. If I decline to publish a story, it’s usually due to a combination of factors such as an inconsistent narrative voice, unnatural sounding dialogue, cliché imagery or plot or over-explaining (not leaving enough to the reader’s imagination). If a story has a lot of grammatical mistakes and doesn’t look as if it’s been proofread properly then I’ll probably turn it down, as it’ll be too much work to prepare it for publication. One of the biggest turn-offs for me, though, are stories with a twist ending where the twist hasn’t been sufficiently foreshadowed or where it’s been so obviously sign-posted that I’ve guessed it before the end. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one I struggle with myself.

Tell us a little about yourself and your own writing?

I’ve always written stories in my head, if not on paper. I remember writing and illustrating a book for my little brother when I was about ten. It was a complete rip-off of the children’s TV series Jamie and His Magic Torch, but I put my heart and soul into it! In my early teens, I graduated to Star Wars fanfiction, but I didn’t write much at all in my late teens and twenties, I was too busy with school, university, work and then babies – I did science A-levels, a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, taught for a few years and then gave it all up to raise two lovely children. I’d had depression and anxiety after the birth of my daughter in 2005, and the doctor advised me to find something with which to occupy my brain. Writing seemed like a good idea, so in 2007, after a bit of dabbling, I took The Open University’s Start Writing Fiction Course, and I haven’t really looked back since. I’ve written quite a few short stories, but flash-fiction is where I feel most at home and I’m pleased to say that I’ve had a fair few pieces published here and there. Right now, I’m working on a collection of summer-themed flash-fictions and in September (if I get enough punters) I’ll be teaching my first ever writing course in the adult education department of my local secondary school. Bit scary!

Are there any short fiction authors who are a particular inspiration? 

Loads! I have a ‘Recommended Reading’ page on my website where I list lots of my favourite authors and stories, but if I had to name just a few, they’d be: Calum Kerr, Nik Perring, Kevlin Henney, Shirley Golden, Cathy Lennon, Lorrie Heartshorn, Angela Readman, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard, Annie Proulx and Kate Atkinson. These are the people whose work I rush to read. (That was more than just a few, wasn’t it?!)

Friends of 1000words are flashandzoom, Paragraph Planet and Stories with Pictures. Can you tell us a bit about each of them?

flashandzoom is a photography and poetry project run photographer Jaime Hill and a writing pal of mine, Zoe Mitchell. The aim of the project is to provide a fresh perspective to photography and poetry, and to create art that reaches people on a number of levels. It’s been a bit quiet of late, but what they’ve produced in the past has been beautiful.

Paragraph Planet publishes a 75-word paragraph (fiction and non-fiction) EVERY SINGLE DAY of the year, which is an amazing feat. You can also read author interviews and there’s a sister site called ‘Writing Workout’ where writers can do all sorts of writing exercises. I’ve had a couple of pieces published on Paragraph Planet and intend to send more soon.

Stories and Pictures is a site that brings writers and artists together in collaboration. It’s chock-full of beautiful stories accompanied by beautiful pictures. Some of the stories have been inspired by pictures, and some of the pictures have been inspired by stories. I’ve had a story and a photo published there too.

  natalie 2 Natalie Bowers, along with Heather Stanley, is the editor and publisher of 1000words online flash fiction magazine. She lives in Hampshire with her husband, two children and a growing collection of ukuleles. Natalie has a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, and has taught Science and A-Level Biology. Her short stories have appeared in print and her flash-fiction has been published in various online journals. You can find a list of her publications on her blog, and she is a fellow Ether Books author. You can follow 1000words on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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Interview with Scriptwriter and Lecturer, Russell Gascoigne

I’m pleased to welcome Russell to the blog today. Most of his work has been in television drama. As a scriptwriter he has written for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C, his credits ranging from soap through to A Touch of Frost. He has worked as a BBC Drama script editor and script reader/consultant for numerous TV and film companies including The Movie Acquisition Corporation, the European Script Fund, LWT, TVS and the BBC. His first YA novel, Rebels, set during the English Civil War, was published in 2004 and he is now working on another, as well as developing other TV projects. He also teaches scriptwriting and runs the Scriptwriting Workshop Online (offering long distance e-learning support to writers working on their own scripts) at Cardiff University.

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“The highs since then? Getting 16.85 million viewers for A Touch of Frost would certainly be one of them.”

 

What have you found to be the key differences between the skills needed for scriptwriting and Young Adult fiction writing? Do you have a preference for one particular form?

I’m not sure that it’s a different set of skills that’s required so much as an understanding of the very different parameters within which you’re working. With both story is paramount, of course, but especially so where scriptwriting is concerned. Beyond that scriptwriting also has a number of really quite strict principles to which you must adhere or, at the very least, remain closely mindful. I recently read an interview with a Hollywood screenwriter in which she described the process as being like writing haiku poetry. I think that’s right. It’s an extremely exacting form which demands control, economy, subtlety and nuance but in which so much can be expressed visually. With fiction you have much more freedom but are forced to describe things. You can also employ devices such as the interior monologue through which to explore your characters. However you can also end up running away with enough rope with which to hang yourself. A particular skill that scriptwriters (should) have is to write good dialogue. Not all novelists have that. Even some otherwise well-regarded novelists are capable of writing slabs of dialogue that would make any scriptwriter wince. Not only because of their length but because they’re often shorn of subtext, any sense of a character’s individual voice and are stuffed to the gills with exposition. As for which particular form I prefer: I really can’t choose one above the other. It’s all writing. Making up stories. I love both.

How did you get into scriptwriting and what have been the highs and lows so far?

I honestly can’t remember if the first script I wrote was for stage or radio. Either way, I started out writing for those. Mainly radio. Short stories and, eventually, drama. My first television commission came about when a writer friend invited me to a meeting an independent production company had set up with the BBC. Having come through the selection process, I was one of the writers invited to write a couple of episodes on the series – a police drama. I was writing novels at the time and had a literary agent. The producer suggested I moved to an agent who worked in film and television. I took his advice. The highs since then? Getting 16.85 million viewers for A Touch of Frost would certainly be one of them. Alongside that: having several of my own, original projects commissioned. The lows? Seeing some of those projects fast-tracked only to be derailed a little further down the line for one reason or another. I still have a note from a BBC exec framed on the wall next to my desk. ‘I think the word is out we should make (name of project) with or without (name of famous person).’ That’s one of them. It wasn’t made in the end. In that particular case because a Head of Drama left their post and the project was sidelined (enough train metaphors now, I think). Not that much of a low really. That’s how it is writing for television. Much more gets picked up than ever gets made. It’s just that when you get close… it hurts that little bit more. You need to accept the disappointment and move on to the next idea. It’s the same for everyone.

Have you ever had specific actors in mind for a role within your scripts and why?

For existing series etc you know who you’re writing for. Otherwise, unless a particular actor has been suggested or is actually attached to the project (which has happened to me on a few occasions), I’ve never really written anything with a specific actor in mind. I’ve simply written for the character(s) in my imagination. Either way, some actors and characters are easier to write for than others. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily better to write for the character(s) in an existing drama or to invent them. I’ve enjoyed doing both.

You have also written drama, documentaries and short stories for BBC Radio 4 and other stations. How different is this to scriptwriting for television? 

You have to create pictures in your listeners’ imagination. You haven’t got the luxury of being able to show things visually. At the same time, you do have the luxury of being able to take them wherever your imagination wants. You can jump from continent to continent – any location you like – with no additional expense. Beyond that, it is – in my experience, at least – a more relaxed medium for which to write. TV productions are on a much larger scale. Accordingly, there’s much more pressure.

What drew you to writing Young Adult fiction and what were your key influences when you were younger? 

My agent was approached by the publisher and I pitched an idea that was originally a proposal for a TV series. It had gained quite a lot of interest but hadn’t gone into development largely due to the expense and the fact that there was another project with a Civil War setting already in production. I had written a couple of unpublished novels before getting into TV drama but I hadn’t thought of writing YA fiction up until that point. A key influence on that particular project – Rebels – was Mark Twain. I loved reading Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn when I was younger. Adventure stories in general. And that’s what Rebels is: an adventure story. It was later optioned by the BBC for film development. It didn’t happen – then. But who knows, maybe another time?

Can you tell us about the Online Scriptwriting Workshop which you run at Cardiff University?

The Scriptwriting Workshop Online is open to writers at all levels of experience and ability from across the UK – and beyond. It isn’t a ‘course’ – I run one of those separately. What I do is help writers develop their scripts on a one-to-one basis via email, providing feedback, guidance and advice on as many rewrites as people want to undertake during the process (which lasts approximately ten weeks). The fact that I am a working writer with a variety of scriptwriting credits does, I think, give me a particular empathy with writers working on their own material. I know what it’s like to get script notes. I know what it’s like trying to incorporate them into a script. At the same time, having been employed on the ‘other side of the fence’ as a script editor and script reader/consultant I also understand the demands and pressures there. Clearly, if you’re working as a script-developer/consultant you want to have accumulated some good scriptwriting credits or dealt directly with scripts at production level within the industry. I’m fortunate enough to have done both. It’s not a bad combination. Most recently one of my students reached the full-read stage of the BBC writersroom script-window. Others have gone on to gain representation and full TV drama commissions, to win and be shortlisted in various scriptwriting competitions and to make their own short films. I’ll be running the next Scriptwriting Workshop Online in September. Details will be posted here http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/learn/choices/humanities/creative-writing-and-media sometime towards the end of June if anyone’s interested.

What would you do if you weren’t a writer and a lecturer?

If I wasn’t involved in scriptwriting (or any other form of writing) I can only imagine I’d do something similarly unhinged, obsessive and lacking in security. Your guess is as good as mine. The fact is, I couldn’t imagine not doing it.

 

Russell Gascoigne is represented by Frances Arnold at Rochelle Stevens (Film & TV) Ltd.

IMDB: http://wwww.imdb.com/name/nm1397925/

Linkedin: linkd.in/1d8jfMB

Twitter: @RussGascoigne1


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Author Interview with Debut Crime Writer, Sarah Hilary

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I’d like to welcome Sarah Hilary to the blog today. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, will be published on Thursday by Headline. It has already received some great reviews and has been heralded as “one of the debut novels of next year, if not THE debut novel.” I wanted to find out more about Sarah, her path to publication, and the inspiration behind her work. Thank you, Sarah, for today’s interview. We wish you all the best for the imminent release of your book!

What drew you to crime fiction and how have you been influenced by other authors or film and television?

SH: I always loved Sherlock Holmes, and I adore TV crime. Key influences would be Silence of the Lambs (film and book), Fred Vargas, Patricia Highsmith, TV shows like The Bridge, The Mentalist, Peaky Blinders… All these things keep me on my toes and inspire me to keep exploring the different angles of crime.

How does your work as a copywriter and editor work alongside fiction writing? Does it help or hinder your creative process?

SH: It helps, I think. I have to produce some pretty taut prose at work, which is never a bad thing in a fiction writer. And it’s good to have time away from stories, to stay in touch with the real world.

What do you think helps to make characters likeable or believable to the reader, and how important is it?

SH: It’s all about empathy. I don’t believe a character needs to be likeable so much as recognisable; he or she needs to touch a nerve in the reader. One reader said that she found Marnie Rome irritating, and that this was a compliment, because it meant that Marnie was ‘real’. I get bored reading about heroes and villains. I’m fascinated by the human qualities between these two extremes. That’s where the interest lies for me.

Where do you write and why?

SH:In cafes, when I can. I like the white noise, and the sense of being in the world and outside it, at the same time.

What is your process and how do you plan?

SH: I keep notebooks and mark down the twists, for the story and for the characters. Other than that, I don’t do much planning. I used to try, but it ended up killing my interest in the story. So now I take a deep breath and dive in…

Your debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin will be released in just a few days. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?

SH: Long and rocky. I was lucky enough to get noticed and encouraged by the agent I’d set my heart on (Jane Gregory) who gave me so much encouragement each time she rejected my early manuscripts. I knew that if I could write a book she loved then I’d make it. Stamina was a very big part of it but, boy, did it pay off.

Thank you, Sarah. Finally, a lighter question for you! What do you do with your time when you are not writing?

SH: Watch TV with my daughter. Read. Count my blessings.

Sarah-Hilary-Mon-21-webSarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, will be published in 2014 by Headline in the UK, Penguin in the US, and in six other countries worldwide. A second book in the series will be published a year later. Set in London, both books feature DI Marnie Rome, a woman with a tragic past and a unique insight into domestic violence. www.sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.co.uk/