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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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Which Books Would You Take With You if the House Burnt Down?

A dramatic title, isn’t it? Inspired by a wonderful post I came across this morning from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings blog, entitled The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire, it wasn’t so much the eye-catching title which caught my attention so much as the photographs: images of people’s treasured possessions, from camera lenses and photographs to pets, cigars and underwear! One six year old boy added a Lego helicopter, a great choice. What I found intriguing was the inclusion of many books in people’s in people’s collections. A literature teacher from Germany had included her Great Aunt’s violin, along with two letters, a journal, a New American Standard Bible, Rilke’s Book of Hours and T.S. Elliot’s Collected Poems. Popova’s own collection includes a 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse, and a 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round. It made me wonder which books I would take with me if I had to leave in a hurry. In an age of eBooks many of us still treasure rare or familiar paperbacks and hardbacks, books with inscriptions or notes, books with illustrations and photographs. I have compiled a collection of books:

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It’s quite a mix of authors, fiction and non-fiction. Each book has its own reason for sitting on the pile, each book its own place in memory.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first book I couldn’t put down. I had finally found a book which kept me up at night until I had read the last page. Originally published in 1915, this spy thriller is set in the wild mores of Scottish, a place which holds great memories and partly the reason for the story’s resonance. I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot: On the eve of World War I we meet Richard Hannay, bored with his London life until he finds a body in his flat. Before long, Hannay finds himself in possession of a little black book that holds the key to the conspiracy, and on the run from the police. The books has inspired many films and plays since, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic adaptation. Read it!

The Alchemist holds its place in my mind for the very reason that my husband read it to me on our honeymoon. This is not a regular occurrence but it is a memory I treasure. Set in the exotic locations of Spain and the Egyptian desert, Coelho tells the magical story of Santiago, a shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world to seek treasure. The otherworldliness of this story, with its magical realism and folklore, inspires you to dream and to think beyond the boundaries we create in our lives.

“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories was given to me by a dear friend with an inscription in the front. It is a 1964 reprint. Hemmingway’s short stories are raw and sharply observed.  I think that’s all I need to say.

Samson Agonistes might seem an unlikely choice, but this battered version has been on my bookshelf since my schooldays. Milton was taught with great enthusiasm by my English teacher, and at a point where I began to understand the many layers within a text. My copy is full of notes in a variety of colours with underlining and asterisks. I will hold on to this one.

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W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry forms a part of my long history of collecting poetry. I have been fascinated by poetry since childhood, and Yeats is a writer whose work I enjoy because it is mystical, melancholic and full of questioning. The first line of To A Young Beauty is a great example of his style:

“Dear fellow-artist, why so free

With every sort of company,

With every Jack and Jill?”

W.H Auden Poems selected by John Fuller is here for the same reason, although he is possibly my favourite poet. Most notable for Funeral Blues, beginning with Stop the clocks, his lesser known works are just as lyrical and beautifully crafted. I really enjoy the wit and irony which runs through much of his writing. Epitaph on a Tyrant is scathing and applicable to any dictator you choose to name.

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.”

Love and Freedom is a book I have mentioned in a previous post, so I will just say that I am so glad it is back in print. A rare gem that was originally used for research and has become one to keep. This memoir set in post-war Prague is electric; a beautiful, honest account of a life lived under communism.

The Essential Tales of Chekhov was also a gift and has an inscription in the front. I am a big fan of Chekhov’s stories. They need no explanation but this collection is really good. Edited by Richard Ford, is comes with a lengthy introduction on Why We Like Chekhov.

George Orwell Essays has been added to a list which is reasonably filled with non-fiction as well as fiction. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I almost prefer his essays to his famed 1984 and Animal Farm, to hear his unfiltered thoughts, than through the lenses of dystopia or allegory. I haven’t yet read his other fiction novels, so I should reserve judgement. His essay, Why I Write, might appeal to writers. He has also written on Kipling, Yeats, Tolstoy and Wodehouse, which I found interesting. He has bravely covered many political topics, although I think he would rather call it honesty.

Letters From Father Christmas is a wonderful find. I discovered it whilst searching for Christmas presents last year. It is a collection of letters written and illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien between 1920 and 1942 for his children. They were released posthumously and received a warm response from critics. It has been suggested that elements of the stories inspired parts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The stories include descriptions of the massive fireworks that create the northern lights and the illustrations are inspirational. 

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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.

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‘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.

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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

 


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The Chemistry Between Writer and Reader

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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.


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Writers and Their Creative Spaces

Some of you may have noticed the blog header change. It is a photograph I took of  W. H. Auden’s desk and typewriter at his summer house in Kirchstetten, Austria, not so far from where I live. The previous header was an image of his bookshelves which are upstairs in his study. I visited Auden’s summer house last Autumn, just as Take Me to the Castle was about to be released and just as I began to creep into the world of social media as a writer. If you searched for F. C. Malby prior to September 2012, you would not have found a thing.

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W. H. Auden’s study in the upper rooms of his summer house – Kirchstetten, Austria.

I have been interested in writing spaces for a while for several reasons:

They form the inspiration for the work of each writer, whether the space is a small desk in the corner of a room, a pocket of a cafe, a library, or a large wood desk in a grander room. Writers are natural sponges of their immediate surroundings – the views, the conversations, small objects or buildings. All of these things help to form the ideas which swirl around in our minds.

They are a slice of history. Visiting this beautiful house in a remote village, where Auden penned gems such as Stop all the Clocks, I felt a sense of anticipation as I scanned his bookshelves, coffee pots, vodka bottles, memorabilia, even his slippers left by the chair. It was almost as though he could have walked into the room at any moment. Everything he read and used has been left as it was and turned into a small museum. I sat in the chair by the desk and looked out of the window wondering what he might have thought as he looked out towards the woods.

The books say much about the author. Auden had a small selection of his own books in amongst shelves of writers such as Wodehouse, Shakespeare, Twain, Waugh, Keats and Golding, as well as a collection of atlases and books on psychology and philosophy. I looked at the books closely because I believe that what each writer reads will influence his or her writing and style to a great extent.

I have been to the Isle of Jura on the West coast of Scotland but have yet to visit the rented house where Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty Four.  He apparently worked without electricity or running water on a remote end of the isle.

If you are interested in finding out more about writers and their creative spaces, I have a board on Pinterest of well known writers, with many in their work environment.

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Agatha Christie’s study

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Sebastian Faulks’ garden work space

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 Jane Austin’s tiny walnut table

Agatha Christie surrounded herself with art. I also find art galleries a source of inspiration for some of my writing.

Beatrix Potter surrounded herself with animals as she wrote and illustrated her famous Peter Rabbit books.

E. B. White worked in a boathouse. Imagine the waves lapping against the boathouse walls as he wrote and a view into a horizon where the ocean meets the sky.

Sylvia Plath took her typewriter in the great outdoors, sitting on a stone wall with her typewriter balanced on her lap.

Louise de Bernieres writes in a shed in the garden over looking a vegetable patch with a view of pheasants, listening to music.

Sebastian Faulks uses a small room fifteen minutes from his house. He has a small cameo of Tolstoy that he bought in his house in Moscow and a bronze relief of Dickens. For each book he invokes a sort of patron saint. For A Week in December it was George Orwell.

Jane Austin worked on a fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod, which must be the smallest table ever used by a writer. She established herself as a writer whilst working here after a long period of silence. Her early novels had been written upstairs in her father’s Hampshire rectory.