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

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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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Author Interview – Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared in various publications such as The Guardian, Carve Magazine, Crack The Spine and the 2014 and 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. Her radio dramas have won prizes and commendations from the BBC World Service and she has been twice shorlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is a Senior Advisor and Editor for Mash Stories and a Resident Reader for Carve magazine. You can find her online at www.jenharvey.net

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1. What drew you to writing short stories and how has this developed over time?

The first serious piece of fiction I completed was a radio drama I entered for a competition run by the BBC World Service back in 2001. For some reason I seem to ‘hear’ dialogue more easily than other aspects of prose writing (description is still a very difficult thing for me) and so writing a play seemed to come naturally. I ended up winning the prize that year for best European drama and this gave me the confidence to consider writing more. So I set about turning the play into a short story just to see how it would work and I found this experience so challenging and rewarding that I’ve been writing ever since. Writing is very much a continuous learning curve and the most important thing I have learned since I first put pen to paper in 2001 is to read, read, read. Especially short stories. The range of techniques writers play with in the short form is more varied and interesting and experimental, I think, and the more you read and try these things yourself in your own writing, the better you get. It sounds obvious, but it’s hard work.

2. You read submissions for Carve Magazine and are a judge for Mash Stories, tell us what you look for in a submission. Can you define what hooks you into a story?

The submissions for Carve and Mash are so different, so I read them with different criteria in mind. For Carve we accept short story submissions up to 10,000 words whereas Mash specialises in flash fiction up to 500 words. For Carve I tend to have a more ‘literary’ hat on so a story has to work on all levels for me – character, narrative voice, plot, pace, description etc. All the technical aspects need to be working together so that the story flows well and reads easily on the first read. It’s only on subsequent reads that I will try to get a better sense of what draws me emotionally to the story and often this comes down to the characters. If I instinctively feel interested in them then I will pass a story up the line to the editors. For Mash it’s a whole different thing. Flash fiction for me works best when one aspect is leading the story, be that the language, the plot, or the narrative voice/characterisation. In 500 words you don’t often have the space to deliver a complete story. Kathy Fish put it very well in a recent interview when she explained that Flash doesn’t necessarily need a plot, it often works better when it has movement. And I tend to agree with her. A killer, for me, is a flash story that aims for a twist at the end. It very often fails and comes across as gimmicky.

3. Tell us about your columns for Litro Magazine and how you got into more journalistic work?

I have blogged, all be it intermittently, since 2005 because I like to have a little space where I can throw ideas out into the wide world. When Dan Coxon approached me to come on board for Litro I jumped at the opportunity because it allowed me to interview the writers submitting flash fiction to Litro for their weekly Flash Friday series. I loved talking to writers about their stories and every now and then I still do this, but at the momentI have stopped conducting interviews because I am working on a thriller which is taking up all my time and brain capacity. So, for now, journalism will take a back seat.

4.How did you find the Advanced Creative Writing Course with Oxford University and the Curtis Brown Creative courses in terms of what you learnt, and how have they impacted your writing?

The tutor feedback with Oxford was, as you can expect, excellent. They require two written assignments from the students and the detailed tutor feedback is very useful. One of the pieces I wrote for this course as an exercise found its way into the 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthology and I am working on the two assignments I submitted to edit them into pieces I can submit to journals at some point. Curtis Brown are also amazing. Their course is very much geared up to getting you started writing a novel and alongside tutorials they provide useful tips about the publishing industry and the whole submissions process. The course itself relies more on group feedback from the other writers on the course, but I was really pleased with this as the group I was in was very motivated and full of writers who clearly knew their stuff. In terms of the impact on my writing I would say the biggest thing I took away from them was self-confidence. I am a terrible self critic so having other people, tutors and writers, tell you you are on the right track is very motivating and on those days when the self doubt kicks in I now have that experience to fall back on and remind myself that I can do it and I just need to knuckle down and keep writing. I also think courses such as these help you to hone your critical skills. Having to read and think not only about stories written by accomplished writers but those of your fellow students really teaches you what to look for in terms of what makes a good story work and what sort of problems are causing a story to miss the mark. I think every writer should attend such a course at some stage. Learning is something we all need to do and, for me, it’s a lifelong process.

5. You have also written poetry and plays. I really liked your poem for The Guardian Poetry Workshop, It’s Only When he Turns the Pages, Touches the Paper that His Eyes Light Up. Do you think one form of writing feeds into another in any way?

Definitely. Writing flash fiction helps me focus on the language and the voice a lot more – the fact that it forces you to think very clearly about what it is you are trying to say is a very useful exercise. Drama of course really helps you to craft realistic characters – in some ways writing can be a bit like acting in that you need to get under the skin of your characters and think and feel the way they do and, for me, finding their voice, literally hearing how they speak is a really useful way to develop that deeper understanding.

6. What and who are your writing influences?

It changes a lot and often the book I am reading at any particular moment will be the thing which is guiding me in some way. So right now that would be Cees Nooteboom and Richard Brautigan. A lifelong influence on me, from the moment I first encountered him on T.V. is and will always be, David Bowie. He taught me the invaluable lesson of curiosity. To look around at everything and absorb it, then see where it takes you creatively. It sounds simple but it’s actually a very daring approach – to be limitless in terms of influences. This is what made Bowie an artist and not just a musician. I owe him a lot.

7. Give us an interesting fact about yourself.

When I was a kid, I lived in Zimbabwe and went to school where the teachers were all German nuns. Every day started with ‘Guten morgen kinderen!’ And I think this experience opened me up to different cultures and languages.


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Flash Fiction – It’s Dorothy

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There is something about flash fiction that captures a moment perhaps more sharply than a short story, if that is possible. A snapshot of everyday life, of feelings, thoughts, moment. I enjoy reading and writing flash and have been following Flash Fiction Magazine for a while. There are some great stories. Today they published my second story, It’s Dorothy.

The early morning light pierced through the kitchen window, catching the edge of the table. Dents left from an old mincer had been ingrained along the edges, and there were strokes of felt tip pen in an array of colours left by the grandchildren during a recent visit. Signs of life, she thought. Kitchens are the hub of the home, her mother had said, but life as she knew it had come to an abrupt end last night when she had received the call…. continue reading at Flash Fiction Magazine.


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Book Review: The Girl on the Train

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I am currently working my way through a few psychological thrillers and this one did not disappoint. Very much following the theme of amnesia found in Before I Go to Sleep and Elizabeth is Missing, this is the story of Rachel who as an unreliable narrator leaves the reader questioning whether or not to believe her account of events. The chapters cycle through different viewpoints from Rachel, Anna and Megan. The dates go back and forth, eventually colliding at a crescendo point in the narrative. It’s a tense and gripping thriller. Hawkins has clearly had fun with the characters and she ratchets up the tension with each twist in the story. It’s not often that I am blindsided by an ending but i really did not see it coming and was as surprised as most when I discovered the details surrounding the disappearance of Megan, who we initially think is Jess.

There are chilling flashbacks to a girl in a tunnel, blood on Rachel’s head, a red-headed man at the station who she may or may not know. Her memories change, they shift, and sometimes turn out to be complete untruths. The agony of her not quite remembering due to one glass or bottle too many should frustrate the reader, but Hawkins manages to draw you into Rachel’s fear, self-doubt, and you easily pity her, empathise and root for her, despite the fact that she has been stalking complete strangers and her ex-husband, situations that would not usually draw a reader’s sympathy. Cleverly written and well worth reading. I wonder whether the film will stay true to the story. It will be released on 7 October staring Emily Blunt, who I think will do a sterling job as Rachel.


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Book Release: Unthology 8

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Unthology 8 from Unthank Books is released today. My story, Lines in the Sand appears alongside a great range of stories and the official launch is in Norwich next week. Get in touch with me or @UnthankBooks for details.

There have been some lovely reviews so far:

‘The most addictive Unthology yet!’ Our Book Reviews

‘A memorable and hard-hitting anthology of work.’ Sabotage Reviews

‘A diverse and exciting foray into the collection that’s becoming renowned for representing the best of the short story.’ Cultured Vulture

Synopsis:

Live on a grand scale. Make deathless art. Scream paint. Sculpt ice. Let it melt and become a dynasty. Tarry with prophets and dreamers. Find joy in danger zones. Quit the stage of history. Tread the boards instead. Take a safari. Take a boat ride to the south of France. Work in the music biz, a chicken shack or cliff-top cafe. Fall in love, then out of love. Complete the jigsaw puzzle in a tiny room. Find yourself in a prison cell. Become a machine, loveable and servile. Realise that all the time, wherever you have been, whoever you’ve inhabited, you have been in a relationship with everyone there ever was or is yet to come and you can’t do one damn thing about it. Find fellow travellers here. Make friends with UNTHOLOGY 8. Includes new stories by Victoria Briggs, Kit Caless, Armel Dagorn, Judy Darley, Laura Darling, Sarah Dobbs, Clare Fisher , David Frankel, Rodge Glass, Damon King, Dan Malakin, FC Maltby, Amanda Mason, Martin Monaha,n Andre Van Loon and Lara Williams


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Book Release: My Brother Was a Kangaroo and Other Stories

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The time has come to release my debut short story collection, My Brother Was a KangarooThis has been a few years in the making, with many of the stories having been published in literary journals and magazines. Some have won prizes and three are forthcoming in paperback anthologies with Kingston University Press, Unthank Books and Flash Flood Journal. The collection is available in paperback and as an ebook.

Here is a taster….

‘The stories will resonate with you long after finishing’ Avril Joy, Costa Short Story Award winner 

From a boy searching for his parents in a North African souk to the marketplaces of India; from the hospital bed of a writer who has inexplicably lost his memory to a small girl who gives stones to a man on a park bench; and from Freud’s couch in Vienna to the mythical sirens, this collection will stir your senses and take you on a journey around the globe. It explores the intricacies of human nature and the complex ways in which people respond to pressure, change and loss. 

‘F.C. Malby is one of those writers who makes you sit up and pay attention. She’s a natural storyteller, a gifted wordsmith, and fearless in taking her imagination to the dark side when the story requires it.’Dan Coxon, fiction editor, Litro Magazine 

‘Malby’s writing is restrained, understated and elegant. Her shorter fiction pieces are stunning, creating a sense of beauty and poignancy in just a few hundred words.’Maureen Scott, CEO, Ether Books 

‘Deeply moving and attuned to the subtleties of human relationships, F.C. Malby’s stories make us realise we’re only one step away from a completely different world.’ Ashley Stokes, editorial director and short fiction editor, Unthank Books 

I hope you enjoy the stories and I look forward to hearing from you. Do share this with friends and fellow short story lovers.


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Short Story News

After a break from blogging, I’m back with some short story news. After 8 years in Vienna, Austria, I am now back in the UK and a collection of my short stories is due to be released soon as an anthology. I’m really excited about the collection, which includes many stories published in literary magazines, and several anthologies as stand alone stories.

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The other news is that my story, Lines in the Sand, will be published by Unthank Books in Unthology 8 in November. My work will be published alongside some wonderful writers, so I am thrilled to be a part of this publication.

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And one of my stories has gone into this wonderful collection, Hearing Voices, which will soon be published by Kingston University Press. It includes work by Pulitzer Prize winner, Anthony Doerr and is an exciting mix of stories from locations as far flung as Ithaca, Nairobi and the surface of the moon!

Thank you for all of your comments and interest in the blog.