Monday, 30 December 2013

Looking back over 2013

I started to study writing (but not actually doing it) in October 2002. I only started writing writing when I joined a hardworking online writing group in November 2003. Writing is writing, to me. See? Good. 

So. To 2013. Books first. 
One of the joys of working with an indie press is that you can say, ‘Hey, this text book has been out for a few years - I’d like to update, refresh, add some new chapters by fab writers, maybe do a little pruning?’ and they say, ‘Good idea - do it.’
The result is  the terrific second edition of Short Circuit: Guide to the Art of the Short Story. Eight new chapters, new intro, sharper all round, I think - although the first edition was pretty good anyway. It’s been a huge privilege to be able to put together the text book I’d have liked when I started this writing lark myself, so thank you Salt Publishing.

So. That was book number five. A recap? Ok. 

1. ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ (short stories, published 2008 by Salt), 
2. ‘Short Circuit first edition (2009), 
3. ‘Storm Warning’ (short stories on the theme of conflict, published 2010 by Salt),
4. ‘The Coward’s Tale’ (novel, published in UK in 2011 by Bloomsbury)
4.5 'The Coward’s Tale’ published in USA 2012
5.  'Short Circuit’ second edition (2013)

and book number 6 crept into 2013 as well, allowing me to say I have almost managed a book a year since 2008 as the US version of TCT doesn’t really count.  

6. My debut poetry publication, ‘The Half Life of Fathers’ was published by Pighog Press in November and launched in Brighton. Again, a joy of working with an indie - I was at Gladstone’s Library in September, there was a literary fest, I was reading, and Pighog kindly produced some advance copies. Thank you Pighog. 

It’s a game, all this - a serious one, but a game still. The writing world is full of ‘you must do this, must do that’, and in the end you could spend your days dancing to everyone’s tune but your own. I’m certainly not playing anyone else’s game these days, just mine.
Little Owl, illustration by Lynn Roberts - from 'Ed's Wife and Other Creatures' 

So. Book number 7, and the one I have had more fun writing than any other, is now with my agent. This is the collection of tiny fictions called ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’, beautifully and cleverly illustrated by artist and poet Lynn Roberts. Lynn’s own collection of poems inspired by paintings in The National Gallery is due out in April, and I am hugely grateful to her for going with the flow when I changed the goalposts from ‘about ten’ illustrations to ‘oh they are so good, can each story have a drawing?’ when there are almost seventy stories.  Thank to Lynn!

Anthology publications this year include a story in the lovely Red Room, published by Unthank and aimed at raising funds for the Bronte Birthplace Trust - and a lovely trip to Manchester to read at The Portico Library, staying with Elizabeth Baines. Then there is ‘The Irreal Reader’ a compilation of the editor’s picks from The Cafe Irreal, one of my favourite online journals, together with academic essays on irrealism. 
Theology Room, Gladstone's Library
Going places thanks to writing - I look back with huge pleasure over a NAWE conference at York, two (two!) stays at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat early in the year, during which I was able to focus hard on the two separate strands of the next novel, ‘Kit’. I then put the novel away, letting it stew, until a glorious month at Gladstone’s Library in September, during which I was able to focus on getting a wobbly draft together, with invaluable input from both my agent (thanks Euan Thorneycroft) and military historian Jeremy Banning. Thank you to both. 
Part of The Western Front, at July 1916

Mr Banning led an unforgettable trip to France for what is becoming an annual event - the Writers Pals visit to the WW1 battlefields. This year, readings of poetry by the grave of Isaac Rosenberg, readings in  a sodden Strip Trench at Mametz Wood from 'In Parenthesis' by David Jones, and a walk with poet and friend Caroline Davies from the Citadel at Fricourt down to the Hammerhead were real highlights. As was the group writing every evening by the fire at Chevasse Ferme. Next year’s trip is already planned, and full. Can’t wait! Thanks to all the Writers’ Pals, including Tania Hershman, Sarah Salway and Zoe King. 

A bit of judging, notably the Gladstones Library Flash competition, a panel effort,  with the editors of Flash Magazine (Uni of Chester), was lovely. And a bit of supporting The Bristol Short Story Prize, giving out the prizes and giving a short address - wonderful. Bristol was also the venue for a George Saunders event, during which he was interviewed by Nikesh Shukla, back in May. 

Teaching always takes a place at the table. Workshops have been great, giving the odd talk also great, especially to writing students at Lancaster and Brighton Universities- but the best thing this year has been mentoring. This was a  professional working relationship brokered by New Writing South, and it was a huge privilege to mentor a terrific writer for nine months, a novelist who wanted to pull together a collection of short stories. Tick! 

A good year - now on to 2014. What am I most looking forward to? Finishing ‘Kit’ and thus getting the renowned ‘dreadful second novel’ everyone waits for, out of the way. Having 'nothing' on my plate for a while while I think about what I really want to do next, creatively. Readings and other events already organised include Oxted Literary Festival in February, another exciting gig in London in March. A ten day novel-finishing (please!) retreat at the unparalleled Gladstone’s Library also in February, and poetry poetry - I’m exploring being mentored, myself - very exciting. Definitely off to Ireland in October for a week’s poetry at Anam Cara. A weekend at Cambridge with SWWJ in April, also judging a competition for them, on the theme of war, off to the brilliant International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna in July, and judging a short fiction competition for Cinnamon Press later in the summer- I will be busy. 

I wish everyone who reads this a very Happy New Year. Lets hope it brings fresh ideas, the calm to explore them, a few exciting storm clouds punctuated by flashes of brilliance. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Jo Derrick - and Twisted Sheets

I am really delighted to welcome Jo Derrick to the blog today, for a natter. Delighted for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which that she was the first editor to take a punt on a new writer, and give her her first ever publications in print, in the sadly no more QWF - Quality Women's Fiction. Those first steps are so important - they can make or break, and I have a lot to thank her for, boosting my confidence when it was really needed. 

Jo has won many many prizes for her own short fictions. She has just published them as an e book, Twisted Sheets, and you can find a link to purchase the e book at the end of our natter! But first, I was thrilled to have a conversation via email. And to be able to persuade her to let me share one of her flash fictions with you. So - read on, then enjoy a taste of her writing!

You were the first to publish me in print, Jo, in QWF - always hugely grateful for that. You started Cadenza, and now you are running another small mag, Yellow Room. Why do you do it, with no funding, isnt it stressy? 

I remember publishing your stories in QWF so well, Vanessa. They really made me sit up and take notice! Running a literary magazine like The Yellow Room is stressy! It's so much more difficult these days when you're in competition with e-zines, online mags and websites featuring short fiction. Not many people can be bothered to order and pay for a print magazines, so that it's very difficult attracting new subscribers. Print and postage costs have risen hugely in the past few years, and it's almost impossible to break even financially. If it wasn't for the competitions I run twice a year, then The Yellow Room would have gone under months ago. My aim was to publish two print magazines per year, but I have only managed one per year for the past two years simply due to cash flow problems. I've also noticed I'm sent far fewer submissions than in the past and now I'm almost exclusively publishing the competition winners and shortlisted stories, so the magazine is evolving into a competition anthology. I'm hoping to get someone else on board so that I can focus more on my own writing in the future.

What do you look for in a submission, or a competition entry? What is it makes you sit up and get a bit excited about a piece of work?
Originality - not necessarily originality of theme, but there has to be something about the quality of the writing that stands out. It's a bit like the dreaded 'X Factor' in that you recognise star quality when you see it. Use of language is very important to me - far more important than plot, for example. I also favour character-led stories. I know from reading the title and the first paragraph of a story whether it's going to be something I like. Quirkiness. Something different. A story has to resonate and speak to me. It has to tug on my emotions. 

Your new collection, tell us about that.
I like to think the stories have an edge to them. Some are erotic, others are verging on crime stories. I like writing from a male viewpoint and often from a child's viewpoint. Sex, death and rock n' roll feature quite regularly! My characters are often outsiders whose lives are blighted by tragedy. However, there is very little sentimentality. My writing  has been described as 'full of sensitivity'; 'constantly intriguing'; 'clever and poignant'. The stories in the collection have all either been published, shortlisted in competitions or have won prizes. Actually, I think there are a couple of exceptions. I put the collection together a year or so ago and entered in The Scott Prize. I didn't get anywhere, but, undaunted, I sent it to The Cinnamon Press who were looking for nine new collections of poetry and prose for their 2014 list. Unfortunately, I didn't make the final nine, but I received a lovely email to say they'd had over 2,000 submissions and mine got very close to being accepted. This gave me faith in the collection, but I didn't know where else to send it. I understand that publishers aren't keen on short story collections (Salt is probably an exception) and agents are only interested in 'the novel'. I was persuaded by members of my local RNA Chapter to publish an e-book, as it's so much easier to do all the formatting etc than it used to be.

Its a collection of prizewinners - can you list them?? 
There are too many to list here, but I can mention a few. The most recent prizewinner is Colours Fade to Black and White, which came 2nd in the 2013 Greenacre Writers Competition judged by Alex Wheatle. Three of the stories, The Black Queen, Smile For The Camera and Black Jacks and Sparrows did well in The Whittaker Prize 2012 and I came Joint 2nd overall (there are 6 Rounds in total). The Cleansing won book prizes in Alex Keegan's From the Ashes Competition way back in 2000. Four stories, The Fledgling, Skin and Bone, Alopecia and A Stray Dog and Surfer Boy all won 1st Prize in the Live Write Invite competitions and other stories in the collection came 2nd or 3rd. Camels in A Field won the 4th Round of The Word Hut Competition last year and Thomas Stofer, a literary agent at LBA, got in touch on the strength of that saying he'd like to read my novel. Getting Off Her Chest was Highly Commended in The Wells Literary Competition and was also longlisted in The Fish Prize. At the beginning of the collection, I have listed all the details of publications and prizes.

why did you decide to self publish as an e book?
I touched on this above. I didn't see the point of the collection sitting languishing in a folder on my computer, when it could be being read and possibly earning me a few pennies! It was a spur of the moment decision to publish it via KDP after I'd had a couple of sloe gins on Thursday! It was amazingly easy to publish, as I'd previously proofread the collection and it was the best I could make it.  I was astonished when it appeared on amazon for sale within a couple of hours! I had a wonderful virtual launch party on Facebook on Friday night and I'd sold a lot of copies by the end of it. The collection reached the dizzy heights of #19 in the Bestselling Paid Short Story Kindle Chart by midnight on Friday. I guess I e-published, as I wanted a bit of exposure and wanted to take my writing to the next level. It would be wonderful if a publisher took an interest in the collection and published it in print form. 

What next?
I'm already planning another short story collection. Although I've written a novel (and I'm now working on a new draft), it's not quite ready for submission to agents and I continue to write short stories, as that's what I love writing most! I'm still entering competitions and hope I'll have many more prizewinning stories for readers who enjoyed Twisted Sheets.
Thank you so much for chatting to me, Vanessa and for having me as a guest on your blog!
Jo x x x 

My pleasure!

Jo's collection of prizewinners, Twisted Sheets,  can be bought from Amazon,  here:

Follow her on Twitter @yellowjo

and a treat: with Jo's permission here is one of her flash fictions, Sounds of Darkness - First published on Flash Flood Friday , 12th October 2012 


Until my last wife, I was happy.
Until my last wife I drank four pints of Adnam’s ale every night in The Old Ship Inn. I’d then amble out into the night and watch the pewter-coloured sea roll and heave like an old drunk.
“Lean into me, old friend. We can beat the wind,” I say to Arthur, who has been in the pub since five. 
The beach has virtually disappeared and what’s left of it is uninviting; too wet, too grey, too slippery.
The old and the ancient emerge from the dusk. The Victorian hotels frown down upon the beach like proud patricians.
We light a fire on the beach. When it dies and night sweeps over us, we move on, staggering like old tramps towards the town. 
“Listen!” says Arthur and stops us both dead in our tracks. “Hear that? That, my boy, is the sound of darkness going.”
I nod sagely. “Yeah, man. Darkness. Always goes eventually,” I say weaving my way along the main road.
“Fancy a last one in The Dungeness?” Arthur asks, fishing in his pockets for the last of his cash.
I grin. “Sure thing.”
We approach the bar. The landlady gives us a look that could kill. She’s about to call last orders. 
“What’s it to be?”
We order whiskies and carry them to a table near the window and sit in silence before knocking them back in one hit.
Each summer, every summer, last summer. It’s the same routine.
We go back to Arthur’s flat. It’s not sex, nor love, although body fluids are involved. It satisfies. It’s good. 
Later, much later, I stagger out into the dawn, before the beach tractors trundle down the sand ready for the day’s work.

One man sings, another man cries. 


Thursday, 28 November 2013

Of Dublin - and Other Fictions, by Nuala Ni Chonchuir

It is entirely possible that this tiny yet enormous little book is the same physical size as the photograph here - I haven't measured either, but they look pretty close.  One thing is for certain, 'Of Dublin' might be physically tiny but it is a big-hearted little tome which surpasses much heftier books with its sheer strength. I was delighted to be sent a copy.
     Nuala Ni Chonchuir is one of those writers who refuses to be pigeonholed - short stories, flash fictions, poetry, a novel and a second due out early next year. Each of the eleven stories in this 28 page gem sings a different song, and yet, like the best of choral acts, they are in harmony. This is an enormously gifted writer.

Photo credit: Emilia Krysztofiak

Her gifts are apparent immediately in the opening story, 'Jesus of Dublin', its strength of voice, its characterisation, its seeming irreverence - 

I'm the O'Connell Street Jesus, I have a granite plinth and a glass case so swanky it could have come from the National Museum. My old box had a pitched roof  - draughty - and I nearly passed out incide the PVC yoke some nut-job from Irishtown threw together.
the whole a short romp between Jesus and 'the mother,'
down the Bull Island doing the Stella Maris thing, watching over sailors
until you reach the end and her lyricism takes over, becomes prayer-like but totally organic with the piece, leaving me for some unfathomable reason with a lump firmly embedded in the throat,
I'm the Jesus of taxi man and Traveller; of Garda and gambler; Jesus of the pissed and the pioneer. I'm Jesus of culchie and jackeen; brasser and nun. Jesus of Nigerian and Pole; of wino and wierdo. Jesus of soft rain, December snow and rare sun...

and I think that's why I enjoy this writer's work so much. She is never ever predictable.  Her voices are many, and fluid, and great. In the following story, '12th July 1691', the voice shifts to encompass the rhythms of a lost time, and in 'Treedaughter' becomes something like the teller of a fable. The boisterousness complete with a liberal sprinkling of glorious profanities comes back in 'Penny and Leo and Married Bliss' - but there is more than an echo of poignancy as well; 'What Became Of The People We Used To Be?' and 'Fish' seem to me to share that poignancy, an ache.
        Fish is probably my favourite story in this chapbook, and for some unaccountable reason I can't get the trailer to embed here (technofail) but please do visit Dan Powell's blog to read his review and watch the trailer, to hear 'Fish' being read to you here:
        Or is my favourite 'The Road that Mills and Boon Built'? It's very very clever - its well known that pulped paperbacks were used in roadbuilding in the UK - and this story is just magic.

Thoroughly recommended! An object lesson in how a tiny book can pack a real punch. Kudos.

Of Dublin is published by Tower Press, San Francisco. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

FIVE books: Short Circuit 11, the Overheard, Irreal Reader and Red Room anthologies, and my poetry book!

Just in case you thought I was sitting back, letting the untold fame and fortune that comes from writing  keep me in clover and laziness, I would have you know the opposite is true. Yes! I'm poor, but busy.  So here's a catch up, on five books I've been working on, or with, or for...

There's a new Short Circuit, a second edition, with eight new chapters! Endorsed by the Bridport Prize, Fish Prize, Asham Award, the Frank O'Connor Award, by lecturers in Creative Writing, and by writers themselves, this overtakes  the first edition which is recommended reading on many courses across the UK and further afield.
New chapters come packed with wisdom on crafting the short story with insights into how, plus ideas for further exploration, and lists of inspirational stories, from the following:
Carys Davies
Nicholas Royle
Professor Patty McNair (Professor at Columbia College Chicago)
Scott Pack (Publisher, The Friday Project, Harper Collins)
Stuart Evers
Tom Vowler
Zoe King (Chair of Society of Women Writers and Journalists)

And it's great! And HUGE. Salt have surpassed themselves.

This gorgeous book is an anthology of stories edited by Jonathan Taylor, from Salt Publishing, and contains work intended to be either read on the page, or read aloud, as the title suggests. My story herein is 'Ed's Theory of the Soul' and is strange, strange, concerning as it does a bloke who is not sure whether humans are the only creatures with souls. What about the sea? What about the earth? A wall? At the recent NAWE Conference, a few of us had an opportunity to read from our contributions to the gathered masses -  a wonderful occasion. Thrilled to be in here!
Jonathan says: Because of the way these stories speak from the page, it doesn’t matter whether or not they are actually read out loud. Rather, these are stories which might equally be ‘performed’ on the reader’s mental stage, heard in the reader’s mind’s-ear. There is a burgeoning culture in the U.K. and beyond of oral story-telling and prose writers performing their work live, a culture which has developed out of the popularity of poetry in performance. There are numerous collections and anthologies which aim to capture the energy of performance poetry on the page. There is, though, no comparable literature for stories in performance – making this collection unique.
In order to demonstrate the huge diversity of possible performance styles in prose, the collection mingles flash fiction with more sustained stories, genre fiction with realism, experimental pieces with oral storytelling. Contributors are similarly varied in their styles, backgrounds, experience and genres, and include Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, Louis De Bernières, Adele Parks, Kate Pullinger, Adam Roberts, Michelene Wandor, Vanessa Gebbie, Judith Allnatt, Jo Baker, David Belbin, Panos Karnezis, Jane Holland, Gemma Seltzer, Ailsa Cox and Will Buckingham.

The Irreal Reader (Guide Dog Books, US)
Now here's a thing, a rather different anthology in many ways, and here’s the background: 
The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination a pioneering web-based literary magazine, first went online in 1998 with the intention of publishing a type of fantastic fiction most often associated with writers such as Franz Kafka, Kobo Abe and Jorge Luis Borges. To this end, it has published more than 250 authors from over 30 countries. In the course of the past fifteen years, it has also seen its editors nominated for a World Fantasy Award and been named by Writer’s Digest as one of the Top 30 Short Story Markets.
In this anthology, edited by G.S. Evans and Alice WhittenburgGuide Dog Books presents a selection of the fiction and essays from The Cafe Irreal that take us most definitively into the realm of the Irreal. These include pieces by Diploma de Honor Konex winner Ana María Shua (Argentina), Michal Ajvaz (winner of the Magnesia Litera prize in the Czech Republic), Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic, and Pushcart Prize winners Bruce Holland Rogers and Caitlin Horrocks.
I have two stories in this anthology - the first became the title story from my own collection and is called ‘Storm Warning’, and the second is called ‘The Note-Takers’.  Do not ask where either came from, I don’t. I’m just grateful and honoured to have my work included. Big Smile.

 And then there's the wonderful Red Room anthology, edited by A J Ashworth, from Unthank. This contains stories donated by the contributors, to help raise funds for the Bronte Birthplace Trust. David Constantine, Alison Moore, Tania Hershman, Elizabeth Baines...and more and more. My story in here is a rewrite of the final chapter of Jane Eyre, and is entitled 'Chapter XXXV111 - Conclusion (and a little bit of added cookery...)' So you see, I am letting myself write fun, whizzy, wacky stories, whatever you want to call them. Whatever comes, and why not eh? Necessary Fiction reviewed the collection,  among others, and when it comes to my madness, says this:
Perhaps the most outrageous (and also outrageously funny) of these mischievous pieces is Vanessa Gebbie’s “Chapter XXXVIII – Conclusion (and a little bit of added cookery) with abject apologies to Charlotte Brontë.” Gebbie rewrites the ending to Jane Eyre and keeps her tongue firmly in her cheek while doing so. This is a wickedly clever Jane, emphasis on wicked, and one I suspect Jean Rhys would greatly admire as we watch her dispatch the servants and others to arrange her domestic life to suit her own happiness, a Jane that can listen, unperturbed, as Rochester utters an expression like “rumpy pumpy.”

 Perhaps you see what I mean. I'm having fun! Oh, and finally, but not finally, if you see what I mean, my poetry collection: 

Beautifully created by the wonderful Pighog Press. Launched next week at the Pigbaby Festival - with readings not only from moi but also from the fabulous Pascale Petit. 

That'll do for now!

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Last Kings of Sark - Rosa Rankin-Gee's prizewinning debut novel

I am a lucky person - a facebook message a while back asked would I like to read a prizewinning novella turned into a novel,  about to be published by Virago.  Well, yes please, obviously. I had heard of Rosa Rankin-Gee's wonderful win at the Shakespeare and Co Novella Prize in 2011, with a twinge of jealousy - here she is, only just out of the egg. (Well, to me, most people are just out of the egg.) The jealousy is based on the number of years she has left to write - mumble mumble grump. 
      Reader, The Last Kings of Sark is great. The first portion, which follows the fortunes of three young people on the island of Sark, captures perfectly, and in a fantastic setting, the intense friendships we make when we are almost adult, but not quite... when every day holds possibilities, and we take a deep breath and rush in, as into the sea. It is fascinating, too, to know that it began as this prizewinning novella, then Rankin-Gee took the brave step of extending it, into something greater. I love novellas, wouldn't have minded had it remained thus, but the second half is something of a mirror image -and as mirrors do, we meet ourselves, only not quite. And we meet the characters again...  It is thought provoking, and I found this part hugely poignant, opening up as it did, all sorts of memories about plans in my yoof that never quite...oh you know. I read the whole with with joy, and sent the publishers a few words about the book. Here's the link if you'd like to see what I said, among many others.

The Last Kings of Sark is published this week. Just for the blog, the author has been nattering about this terrific debut novel, and about her writing life. 

VG: Welcome Rosa. Have a cuppa and a choccie biccie. Right - first , looking at “A novel in parts”-  Congratulations on winning the Shakespeare and Co Novella prize.  I am now trying to imagine the process of adding the second part some time later, if that’s how it went? What issues did you have to face extending it? Was it your idea, or your  agent’s/ publisher’s?

RR-G: It was a collaborative idea. At first I was fixed on the idea that it would stay a novella, but it’s almost impossible to publish a novella unless you’re Doris Lessing or Ian McEwan. I am very glad I set about turning it into a novel though – it’s the book it should be. I wasn’t finished with the characters yet and to a certain degree, the book grows up, as I did while I was writing it. Victoria Pepe, my wonderful editor who’s actually just left Virago, was very influential and helped me make the book a lot more compact and complete. There’s a sense of nostalgia in the first half of the book, which is only really earned by what happens in part two.

V: Talk to me about ‘Lord of the Flies.’ It’s mentioned a couple of times, maybe more, in the first part of the novel. There are some shallow parallels - both are set on islands, both have young people behaving differently when they are freed from constraints in one way or another.  What other echoes would you like to be picked up between Lord of the Flies and The Last Kings of Sark? 

R: It’s not the major framework for the novel, but you’re right – the characters themselves mention it, and there are little links, as well as fundamental differences, seeing as Sark is an idyll, more than anything.I think a lot of the first part of the novel is about young people intentionally evading and looking away from adulthood. The intention is perhaps the key – Jude, Sofi and Pip’s actions can never really mirror Lord of the Flies, precisely because they are aware of Lord of the Flies. As you’ve very kindly said, The Last Kings of Sark is about “the intense butterfly moments when we are on the cusp of adulthood, but not quite there.” Jude, Sofi and Pip are in between. They are aware of their options, their precedents, their future. Of the Lord of the Flies’ child-world where all may eventually be excused, and the adult one, where everything is harder, more fixed. I suppose it’s the last summer when they are able to inhabit the impermanent space between the two.
V: Sark itself. Did you set it on Sark and then go there to research, or did you go there at some point anyway and the story/characters appeared out of that experience? Also, was it important that this story should be set on an island, that the setting should echo the content, somehow?

R:  I came up with the bones of the plot and a lot of the detail when I was on Sark, with a lovely friend called Tor, working for a summer. She helped me a great deal. Each evening, I’d try and take down notes of everything I’d seen during the day, and her memory was often better than mine. But yes, choosing to situate the book on an island definitely informed the story of the first part. A novella is a condensed mode, and islands are natural microcosms – both are small and self-contained, and I liked that.

4. If you could have one scene from Last Kings of Sark painted, which scene would it be, and who would you want for the artist?

R: I love this question! I think I’d choose one of the Fauvists. Derain or Vlaminck. For their burning colour, and their joyfulness (I see it as joyfulness). If not, Signac – I  saw his retrospective at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier this summer, and he captures light hitting water sublimely. I’d want the painter to read the book and chose the scene themselves. The private beach by way of Cider Press cottage would be a good bet though. 
The Red Buoy, by Signac

V: My mother was a librarian, and a real literary snob. I know, had she been alive when I decided to write, I would have given up quite fast, thanks to apprehension about her comments. Now, however, I wish she’d been around to see what I’ve done... she’d probably have been very proud. I admire your own mother’s work hugely - as you are aware, both it and she have been a very positive influence for me as a writer. ( I admire your father’s work greatly too, not to leave him out!)  Is it easy, now, being the daughter of not one, but two writers? Are the obvious expectations  from others a weight, or a spur?

R: There was no pressure in any sense from them. (about becoming a writer. Naturally, all parents exert pressures in other ways: Do GCSE German! Brush your teeth! And other highly unreasonable things like that). I’m quite entrepreneurial, and I think they would have both equally encouraged me to do something with that, or become an archaeologist or a songwriter.  The thing is, people often end up doing what their parents do.  Daughters of doctors become doctors; there are family dynasties of teachers or lawyers. When you are growing up, you see your parents’ professions as what it means to be an adult, perhaps. 
So, the pressure. From them, no – really not at all. I mean, I want to please them and make them proud, which is a natural impulse for offspring, but I honestly don’t think we compare ourselves. That --  if it comes -- will come from other people. 
Thankfully, though, we’re all very different writers. I say that not because they aren’t good, because they’re very good, but because they got there first, the bastards!, which would make me the derivative one. I don’t think I am derivative though… I hope not. I suppose you just have to read and see.

V: No - you are most definitely your own writer, and one who is going to go far. Thanks for visiting the blog, and for the book. Many congratulations on The Last Kings of Sark, may it fly! It deserves to. Enjoy the journey, and I shall look forward to the next book in due course. 

The Last Kings of Sark is released on November 7th, so you only have another couple of days to wait. It's available from the usual suspects, and can be bought or ordered from all indie book shops. Enjoy!

Friday, 27 September 2013


My third blogpost for Gladstone's Library,  written a week back now. 

Almost a fortnight now since Gladfest, and a chance to settle into a working rhythm. After a few days of prowling about like a re-homed cat, trying out this chair, and that, I settled at a desk on the Reading Room balcony and have been based there ever since, surrounded on three sides by Gladstone’s own books, and in front of me, an inspiring view to the balcony beyond, the stone-mullioned windows.  Just to my right is the huge bay window at the end of the building, its wonderful detail.
       Every now and then, as the day breaks through my fictitious world and I surface into this beautiful place, I will get up and stretch, move a few feet, (steady on now!) pull a book off the shelf, and read a little. Sometimes, the book will hold scribblings by the great man himself, comments, squiggles in the margin, all no doubt meaning something to him should he return to the book at a later date. He adds his own indexes at the back, and you wouldn’t do that unless you intended to return, would you? Sometimes, I find he has seduced me away from my work for longer that I intended, but I don’t mind. Time here is precious as much for what it holds as for how long it is.
      I suspect I would have liked Gladstone hugely. I would have enjoyed the company of the man who could read a German theology book in beautiful, strong German typescript -  and write a single word - Humbug - at the top of a page. I found that on one of my first days here, and it set the tone rather well, brought a smile of pleasure. 

 All the books hold their own intrinsic beauty - but  right behind me are three of my favourites:  the three volumes of The Works of William Blake, Poetic Symbolic and Critical, edited by by Edwin John Ellis and William Butler Yeats. The books were published in 1893, and presented to Gladstone the same year by the editors - and come complete with inscription, as so many books do in this library. The inscription, flyleaf, volume one, reads thus:

      The Rt Hon W E Gladstone
Edwin J Ellis.
(P.S. My fellow worker being in Ireland at the moment is not able to sign this with me.)

Have you heard of Edwin J Ellis? No, me neither, so I looked him up. He seems to have disappeared from consciousness, apart from his collaboration with Yeats on these Blake books - and to see his autograph made me sad. So I searched about a bit, and found references to Ellis as a painter, a poet, novelist, described as ‘erratic’ and a ‘failure’. OK, so Edwin was fairly normal then! 
          I carried on looking for Edwin, and found one of his poems - The Land of Many Names - with its passing reference to opium... and I wonder. 
Isn’t it nice to breathe a little life back into writers? Who knows, maybe one day, people might  be kind enough to do it for this erratic one, long after she is gone.

          The first verse alone is rather beautiful, Edwin. Thanks for writing it. The rest... of its time, I suspect. But that first verse is a keeper.  

The Land of Many Names

There is a place where no surprise
is felt at beauty, or true love tried.
Hate cannot find the gate, nor pride.
There do the spring birds learn to sing
and open their hearts as wide
                                                 as the eyes
of the meadows that wake in spring. 

There the clouds of the golden skies
Find their ruby. The white foam free
of the wave lives there in her maiden glee,
and no hand touches her white side, wild.
The winds cannot hold what they see,
                                                             for she flies
like dreams from a waking child.

Dead lovers there, from the days of Troy,
attain the reward our hearts shall keep,
believing for them in twilight sleep,
the while, as maids at a child-birth wait,
we stay till they call us to peep
                                                  at their joy,
and find in their fate, our fate.

There, while wind through the garden sings
gently and low in the long sunbeams,
they sleep between summer and trees and streams,
they love through their sleep from hour to hour,
in beautiful crimson dreams
                                               like the wings
of the peace-giving poppy flower.

The watchman called it a Land of Rest,
the lonely, a Land of Love, they tell, 
the weary, Eden, whence Adam fell.
But the old who wander the downward slope
deem it Youth, knowing well, 
the Land of Eternal Hope. 

From The Bookman, September, 1894 

Edwin John Ellis was born in 1848, the son of Dr Alexander John Ellis, a Scottish linguist and natural scientist. When in his late teens, Edwin Ellis met John Butler Yeats at Heatherley's art school and the two became good friends, sharing a studio. With John Trivett Nettleship and Sidney Hall the two formed 'The Brotherhood', an informal group of artists working under the influence of William Blake. Along with William Butler Yeats, John Butler Yeats' son, Ellis edited a three-volume edition of The works of William Blake, poetic, symbolic and critical, which was published in 1893. His association with W.B. Yeats also extended to their participation in the Rhymers' Club, with Ellis contributing four poems to The Book of the Rhymers' Club (1892) and six to The Second Book of the Rhymers' Club (1894). He also published several volumes of poetry, including Fate in Arcadia (1892) and Seen in Three Days (1893); the novel The Man of Seven Offers (1895); and the verse drama Sancan the Bard (1895), which served as partial inspiration for Yeats' The King's Threshold (1904). Books illustrated by Ellis include Shakespeare's sonnets, nursery rhymes compiled by his father, and his own works. Ellis died in 1916 at Seeheim, Germany, the birthplace of his wife.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

PELT AND OTHER STORIES by Catherine McNamara

I am delighted to welcome Catherine McNamara to the blog, with her short story collection 'Pelt'.  Over to you, me dear!

I had a gallery in Africa. It was tiny. As big as a garage no more. With Nigerian sculptures and Kuba cloth and silver jewellery from Ethiopia. It was a fun thing – I’m no fine arts graduate – and I confess I overpriced the sculptures I liked most so I could pay them off and make them mine.
I earned some money, which went out the window to buy more sculptures, cloth and jewellery, but I was queen of my art garage, looking out of my little window onto the street, with a huge rusted ship’s anchor parked on the hot concrete outside. On rough nights at the bar we ran next door I used to lay out a rug from Mali and fall asleep.
Many years later I came back to Europe (I live in Italy) and found I was writing story after story set in Ghana where I had lived. A pregnant Ghanaian woman tries to keep her German lover when his estranged wife comes to town. A failed doctor comes home to see his mother treat his dying step-sister with disgust. A village boy is aroused by classy French photographs. Even a sex worker – poor Janet in ‘Janet and the Angry Trees’ – is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents!
What to do? I’m not an African (just the mother of one) and most of the stories are set along the seams between worlds, between ‘the world of tin and the world of glass’ (‘Infection’, Pelt and Other Stories). They speak of the cross-over between modern African and European cultures, the long arm of historical exploitation and the residue from this in terms of migration, displacement, new structures of exploitation. Young men with brittle prospects. Young women with a savvy knowledge of the world who might do unsavoury things.
How to write of all of this without being a crafty traveller, a further exploiter of a continent that is not yours? 
Among the first questions I knew I would be asked, this is the one that makes me feel a little queasy. I know I can talk all I want about the rusty ship’s anchor outside my shop and the way the doctor never came when I was having my baby (getting oily palm nut soup after birth wasn’t my idea of champagne but the plantain afterwards was good), but I remain a suburban chick from Sydney who grew up on The Monkees and Gilligan’s Island. I can try, I can borrow, I can mimic. It’s a little scary. What I do know is that my efforts in telling a tale from the interior land of someone else’s nation – even if I called it home – must transcend place and nail the idea of story on the head. 
Tricky Vanessa has also asked me to provide you readers with a treat. Vanessa has asked that I think of a scene within the book, and think of a painter who could possibly paint it. Well, Vanessa doesn’t know that I used to run a gallery, that my walls are crammed with paintings and masks, and that I have been walking about the house for a good while now trying to connect my stories to my décor. It is driving me nuts. But here goes.

There is a swimming pool scene. It is rather saucy but I would love it explained with David Hockney flatness, although I would ask a Ghanaian painter friend (Kofi Agorsor) to do the deed. A young pregnant Ghanaian woman is breast-stroking down the pool towards the palms. There, with his big feet and his printed drawstring trousers, is her German lover Rolfe, who is canoodling with his estranged wife Karina, come to town to reclaim her man. The swimming girl is like a big swollen frog jerking in the water, insecure and embarrassed, approaching the Europeans. I can see Rolfe’s very big feet, sketched with Lucian Freud abandon. 

(Note from V: Will you look at this guy's work... isn't it fab?

Lust and dirt from a world of places

Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s discarded wife. A sex worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Hit by a car in Brussels, a young woman returns to her doctor boyfriend. And in Berlin, Celeste visits her suicidal brother Ray and his partner for the very last time.
Pelt and Other Stories lingers on the cusp between Europe and Africa, between ancient sentiments and modern disquiet.

Thanks so much for having me Vanessa and good luck with your new project!
‘Pelt and Other Stories’ may be ordered directly from the Indigo Dreams Bookshop, or on Amazon or from the Book Depository. Or from Waterstones or your local independent bookshop.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and has lived in France, Italy, Belgium, Somalia and Ghana.  Her collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’, semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize, was published in September 2013. Her stories have been published in Wasafiri, Short Fiction, ‘Wild Cards’ a Virago Anthology, A Tale of Three Cities, Tears in the Fence, The View from Here, Pretext and Ether Books.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


Friday 6th - Sunday 8th September 2013

The Gladfest buzz started in the middle of last week, when things began to happen not just behind the scenes, but in front. The arrival of two marquees for the lawns in front of the Library, teams of men to erect them. Tantalising... what was going to happen in those? A gardener hard at work in the shape of Jean, visiting Chaplain, and her intrepid voyage of discovery, uprooting and replanting an overgrown rockery and flowerbed. (I am convinced there is a layer  of metaphor below that last sentence. However, the duties of Writer in Residence should include a period of gardening - for no reason other than this: I discovered in my paltry hour or so helping out, that it is rather brilliant for cracking previously insurmountable problems with the oeuvre.) 

On Friday, the Library doors were flung open in more ways than one, and the invasion of the chairs began. The arrival of a stage borrowed from the primary school. Sound system. Lighting. And if anyone was thinking this was an ‘exclusive’ event in all senses of the word, the frequent signs exhorting visitors not only to queue here, but also to tweet @gladlib and #gladfest,  to facebook, and to instagram  photos and comments soon put an end to that.  (Is ‘to instagram’ a verb? Note to self, look that up.) Other signs that something was about to happen: more trays of glasses than normal in the Gladstone Room, bottles of Hendrick’s gin, slices of cucumber and bowls of ice cubes. The arrival of taxi after taxi, the trundle of suitcases on the path. The beehive-like hum in the kitchen. 

Held breath. Would it go well? The first literary festival at Gladstone’s Library.  

Friday, 6.00 pm. Lift-off, and I can tell you that elderflower goes very nicely with Hendrick’s and tonic. The Hendrick’s is thanks to the presence of the wonderful force that is Damian Barr, and it helped a great welcome party get under way for everyone who wished to come, whether writer or non writer, resident or non-resident, staff member or not. 
       Later, in the Theology Room (Actually, in the Library, for those who don’t know) Damian was interviewed by Peter Frances about his wonderful, funny, poignant memoir, Maggie and Me (Bloomsbury). (Yes, I know that should be ‘and I’. However, the narrator is the boy, growing up in Glasgow in the reign of Thatcher, and this title works stupendously well. That was to curtail any pedantry.) Looking back, this event, warm, generous, interesting, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking, set the tone superbly for the whole weekend. 

By Saturday lunchtime, if anyone didn’t know what bibliotherapy was before, they did now.  Ella Berthoud, resplendent in white coat and stethoscope, bibliotherapist extraordinaire (she might even have invented the word...)  let a packed audience in on a diagnosis session, with Mr Barr acting as patient. How fascinating - an analysis of reading habits going back to childhood, likes and dislikes, and reading ‘ailments’ (oh I have so many of those...) culminating in a prescription - a list of guess what - more novels to read as a cure! But novels that the patient, well-read as he is, had not yet read. Ella, whose terrific book The Novel Cure (Canongate)has just been published to great acclaim, was inundated with requests for her ‘surgery’ sessions over the weekend, and was soon sold out. 

These hallowed corridors were filled with people, young and old(er). The dining room overflowed with people grabbing coffees and snacks between events. Some started to relax in the Gladstone Room with the paper then realised there was something more interesting happening, and rushed out to catch whatever it was - including the poetry slam. 
           Leah Edge and Jeanette Wooden from The Reader Organisation ran ‘Make Friends With A Book!’ for children aged between 6 and 10 twice, such was the demand. And Andrew Tate, Senior Lecturer at Lancaster, had the Theology Room spellbound for his talk on Twenty-First Century Gospels - Jesus in Contemporary Fiction. Pullman, Crace, Alderman, Beard, Toibin... (I loved Jim Crace’s Quarantine. I didn’t love Pullman’s Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, but there you are. Chacun a son gout.) 

Waterstones had set up a pop-up store, and was doing a roaring trade, by this point. Books were bought. Books were browsed. Books were signed. The marquees were home to craft stalls, to food stalls. 

Sarah Perry’s lecture, Gladstone, Tennyson, Hallam, was a mesmerising exploration of Victorian friendship, and if there wasn’t an audience member who didn’t mourn the loss of such friendships when she had finished, I’d be surprised. Conversations flowed, afterwards, over gin, wine, coffee. Even on facebook!
         Theatre, radio and television script-writer Shelley Silas’s Scriptwriting workshop was a sell-out. Crime writer Martin Edwards and his cast of thespians, acting out a Victorian crime for the audience to hone their skills as detectives, was a hoot. 
          Stella Duffy’s sparkling talk Wearing Many Hats, left us all inspired, moved, fizzing with energy! (Not easy for a lazy chair-loving animal like moi...) Deborah Wynne, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature at Chester, spoke about the history of Browns of Chester. Performance poet Martin Daws led an interactive poetry workshop for young people. And  Emma Rees, Senior Lecturer in English at Chester - a packed audience hung on her every word as she explored the issue of talking about the female body in Western culture. 

I will have such wonderful memories of this weekend, and am full of gratitude that it took place during my residency. (Yes, I had an event too, but that’s not the point!) It was very special to be able to spend time with other writers here, two of whom had also been writers in residence, and were so delighted to be back ‘home’. Stella Duffy, Sarah Perry. And when people ask, ‘What was your favourite event?’ I won’t be able to answer. 
        People say Gladstone’s Library feeds you, in many many ways, and that is truer than I can explain. Maybe then, a better question is what fed me the most, as well as giving me pure enjoyment?  To which the answer is, Don Cupitt’s event, in conversation with Peter Francis. Sara Perry’s lecture, as it turned out to have a direct bearing on my novel-in-progress. And then, Wendy Cope’s reading, with Lachlan Mackinnon, for different reasons.

So why the silly title, Breakfast with Wendy Cope, which sounds as if it could be a poem by the lady herself? Gladfest was, as I said above, non-exclusive. Open to all. Something of interest for all. And all came. I met such terrific people, had such great natters over snatched coffees. I spent time with writers, published and not yet.  I also spent time with writers who are far far more experienced than I am or will ever be, probably. There is no Green Room, separating the ‘greats’ from the merely ‘good’ and the ‘hoping to be goods’.  At Gladfest, the writers on the stage do not scuttle away after their events, as if they and the rest can not mix, oil and water. 

They mix at Gladfest. It makes quite a good cocktail, actually - Hendrick’s take note. I did have breakfast with Wendy Cope, and I’m not going to tell you what she ate. So there. 

Gladfest was terrific. Congratulations and thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make it so. I am awarding it, and all of you, a medal which looks a little like an exclamation mark. 


(This is the text of my third blog post for Gladstone's Library.)

And finally.

I breakfasted with Wendy Cope - 
How ever did I dare?

I dared because right next to her
there was a vacant chair. 

I breakfasted with Wendy Cope 
on toast, and jam, and tea.

I’m wondering now how Wendy coped
when sitting next to me.