The tail in the tales

When I saw this tweet, I immediately knew I had a story to submit. A story of a mermaid lost in the wrong world. Of a girl searching for her place. Of a little guidance when you least expect it.

This year has been A YEAR. Personally, professionally, all of it. And if my writing has come second to all of that, then submitting has been at the bottom of the list. So, I tentatively pushed Bridget, Lucy and Una out into the big bad world.

Apart from I had a little bit of safety. I knew that my river girls would be safe in the hands of the Dancing Bear Books team – even if they didn’t want to publish their story.

BUT THEY DID!

As you can tell, I was a tad excited. It really did make a huge difference when the big bad world was just a bit too close for comfort.

So why I am I telling you this?! Well. BECAUSE THE BOOK IS HERE!

You can order it direct from the Dancing Bear website NOW! It’s full of weird and wonderful stories, empowering tales, wholehearted goodness. The team are also working for it to be available via Amazon and Waterstones (stores too!) but supporting Indies directly is always lovely.

And as the foreward says – the magic starts with you…


A little note about Little Book of Fairytales

The Dancing Bear Books team created an opportunity for this book because they could see the need for diverse content. We live in a time where fairy tales have never been more relatable, a time where pantomime villains seem to be pulling strings and in consequence, each one of us has become an underdog hero. This book is for voices that have been silenced and stories that have been brushed aside. Little Book of Fairy Tales welcomes everyone; their tragedies, their successes and their love stories.

This book is written for and by minorities. DDB made an extra special effort to make sure that voices who don‚Äôt usually get to speak have a platform. Having these voices and having them tell their own stories was hugely important to DDB, and as minorities, they wanted to create something that was for minority groups. This representation isn‚Äôt a last thought or tokenisation. Something I respect hugely and it’s why I wanted to get involved.

As the fairy tale Queen, Kirsty Logan says:

Fairy tales and folk tales are darker, stranger, messier and more satisfying than people might remember. They’re not just about being pretty or winning princes; they’re about loss and betrayal, regret and confusion, joy and fulfilment. They’re about us.

Kirsty Logan, interviewed in Why long-lost folklore still matters to modern listeners

A place to retreat to

This is not a review I want to write. You’re going to find out my secret and then I’ll have to share. I’m terrible at sharing.

To be totally honest with you, with myself, I share ‘me’ too much. So much so that it leaves very little time for ‘me’. Urgh. Just writing that sentence makes me cringe.

However, it’s true. I needed an escape. Not a complete run for the hills (my wife needed to escape too) but to be away. I saw someone recommend Catherine McNamara’s writing retreats in Italy. Cat and I met long ago at The Word Factory, and she’s often said we should go out there.

The thing was, she runs writing retreats. I wanted to go away to write, but I also wanted to go away to think, to read, to have enough head space for possibilities. Also, my wife doesn’t write (she tells people that. Actually she’s a damn good poet but she keeps it on the quiet). So would it be fair?

She went along with my plan, when Cat said of course she could do a retreat for the two of us. Because that’s what Cat can do – make it fit for you. The writer who stayed a week or so before us had spent her week mostly holed up in a choice of inside and outside spaces working. But Cat gave her the space to unplug too, to discuss work and life and the universe over beautiful meals and excellent drinks. I imagine anyway, because that’s we did, a lot.

We also got guided tours of two cities that are now firmly in our hearts. I read almost three books (probably the same I managed in the first half of the the year) and took the time to discuss them at length. I thought a lot, but not the worrying thoughts that plague the day-to-day about work and family and life on the whole. I thought about my writing, what was working and wasn’t. I even talked about it, which I hadn’t felt able to for a while because my focus has been on the work that can pay now, rather than hopefully later. I thought and talked about that work too, and how it’s going to play out in the second half of my first year as a freelancer.

We slept in, we stayed up late, we got up early, we crashed out. Whatever worked on that day. The only ‘order’ was ours to decide.

I run retreats, much shorter, one day retreats for Writers’ HQ writers. I know the power of saying – “don’t worry, whatever you do today is yours to do. You don’t have to do the washing up, and you don’t have to think about what’s going on at home, you just need to be in the room writing.” I watch writers leave with big grins and new ideas. I forgot what that feels like myself. Until Cat gave us that, or maybe just the space for it. New ideas, hope, and relaxed grins.

I’m going back, next time, as a writer writing rather than a writer in need of a break. I’m going back to sit in the sun-warm outbuilding to write more of the next draft of my novel where Cat wrote her first. I’m going back to continue to reform ideas when the head space is lacking. I’m going back to be in great company and to be looked after in the way I hope I look after my writers (if only for a day and not a week!). I’m going back because I promised Voss (the pup) I’d kick the ball some more.

I didn’t want to share, because I know that Cat’s weeks get booked up. There’s some availability left in late August/September I believe, and if you fancy being part of a taught group then Cat will be running a tutored retreat with Tom Vowler in September (which I’m gutted to miss). She’s taking bookings for 2020 too if you like to plan ahead.

You can find all the info about the retreat on Cat’s website, as well as more about her award-winning writing. Just leave me a week, eh?

Shhh. Top secret plans afoot.

Okay, so it might seem like I’ve been ignoring you all for some time, or more to the point ignoring this blog, but there are lots of secret squirrel plans coming together whilst I piece together my short story collection.
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Most secret (not so secret anymore) is the news that I’m becoming part of Team WHQ. I’ve spoken highly of Writers’ HQ in the past (used to be called Brighton Writers, until they decided to take on the world). From July I’ll be running monthly retreats in Cambridge – so get signed up here for when all the details are confirmed when you’ll get official type invites with discount codes and¬†everything!

It’s also worth knowing that I’m running short story workshops at the Evesham Festival of Words on Friday 30th June, and at the Jersey Festival of Words at the end of September – so I hope to see you at one of these events too.

The books your tokens are waiting for

As we all know, book tokens are second only to carefully chosen books, when considering the best gifts one can get. I had¬†planned on putting together a list like so many others to recap on my reading this year to inspire gift choices, but I’m a few days or even a few weeks too late for that. These recommendations are the books I’ve loved this year, the ones Santa was kind enough to drop into my stocking, and the ones I’m looking forward to in 2017. That should be enough to be getting on with…

The one that outshone all the rest: novel category
Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Lorrie Moore has said this debut is¬†’cause for celebration’, and she’s not wrong. I read an interview with the author, who said that every time she sees the novel in a shop, she wants to rescue Yuki. I thought I understood that feeling, of an author who has put their first baby out into the big bad world. But that wasn’t quite it. Having read the novel, it’s a maternal ache that won’t go away when you see Yuki’s portrait splashed with paint, her unseeing face lined up in rows on a shelf. This is a book of opportunities lost and gained, the chances that you miss or when fate takes your hand and pulls you away. It’s a book of relationships, the hard must haves, the fleeting passions, and unknowing unbound love. As the novel concluded, I cried. Not a solitary tear, but body convulsing sobs. Yuki had got in, and I¬†was with her, with all of the gains and all of the losses. That, is something not many writers can do, but I implore you – take this journey with Yuki. It’s worth it.

Close seconds: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon. Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies. Two very very different child perspective novels which bring light to the worlds we encompass. Read them, they are brilliant.

The one that outshone all the rest: short story collection category
A Wild Swan and Other Tales РMichael Cunningham

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The short story category is always a tough one for me. I’m still writing /editing /rewriting /adding to¬†my own collection, so I’ve found myself dipping in and out of collections over the past year. This collection was a gift last Christmas and it found its way to the top of the pile over the summer. These stories are retellings; subverted, twisted, and yet so close to the fairytales that should make you shiver.’Crazy Old Lady’ and ‘Little Man’ are two of my favourites, but it’s hard to have favourites in a collection of 11 stories that you wish wouldn’t stop at just 11. Even if you don’t like fairytales (what kind of strange creature are you?), try this.

Close seconds: Lightbox – KJ Orr. One Point Two Billion – Mahesh Rao. The Isle of Youth – Laura Van Den Berg. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July. Public Library – Ali Smith. Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood. A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin. Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman. Fen – Daisy Johnson. I¬†told you I’d been dipping in and out of collections! All amazingly talented writers. Read them, even if you think you prefer novels (what kind of strange creature are you?).

The ones I have lined up next (aka Christmas Haul):

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The Accidental Dictionary РPaul Anthony Jones. The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises РBrian Kiteley. Angel Catbird Vol. 1 РMargaret Atwood. Hag-Seed РMargaret Atwood. Fantastic Beasts: The Original Screenplay РJK Rowling. Autumn РAli Smith. The Wonder РEmma Donoghue.

 

 

The one you should be pre-ordering now:
Ink – Alice Broadway

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I had the fortune of winning a copy of this book, which isn’t out until February. Order it. Order it now. I believe it will be categorised as YA, and it is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t matter your age, this book will get under your skin and leave its mark. The strong themes of story telling, what we leave behind when we’re gone, and the art of tattooing, make this a compelling read. Leora is a character that may believe she’s yet to be formed, but her sense of self is clear from page one. This is a beautiful unfolding of a life. I’m not sure if there will be more, but I can see this challenging the likes of Hunger Games for its ability to shine a mirror on the world we live in currently for a new age of ravenous¬†readers.

The others I can’t wait for: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman, Winter – Ali Smith, House of Names –¬†Colm T√≥ib√≠n.

 

I was scared of the title

WBN_logo_in_headline.jpgWorld Book Night is here again! I’m so pleased and proud to be a volunteer book giver for the third year in a row. Two years ago I started bold; talking to strangers on a quiet night at my local pub about reading and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Last year I went even closer to home, reaching out to non readers at my 9-5¬†with Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. This year is personal in a different way.

This year, I’m giving Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. The team at World Book Night explain it as

Full of warmth, humour and life-affirming wisdom, this is an incredible little book that offers a lifeline to anyone who has ever suffered, recovered from or encountered depression. Matt Haig recounts his own experiences with delicate precision and tells a compelling story about how reading and writing helped him out of his darkest period.

I did not want to have depression. No-one has ever wanted depression, it is a ridiculous statement to make, but yet this is how simply I thought about it. I was scared of the label. Of the indelible ink tattooed on my face, on my actions, on my very being, once those words were said. I was scared of what it would make me without even realising I was neck deep in being/feeling all the things I didn’t want to face. I was scared of what it had done to people I love. I fought for too long, for too many people I couldn’t help. Including myself.

I was scared of the title. I had heard lots about Reasons to Stay Alive, about how it helped so many people understand or explain an illness that is often inexplicable. The title, the book, doesn’t allow you to run and hide. It confronts the very fears by presenting itself as the ‘pro’ list when the ‘cons’ are reasons not to stay alive. No one wants to hear those words, see those words, and yet by just opening that door¬†to¬†that conversation lives can be saved.

Confession: I hadn’t read the book when I applied to be a book giver and selected it as my choice. However I brought myself a copy earlier this year. I wish I had read it sooner. I wish someone had handed it to me. So far it has opened up conversations with loved ones who have dealt with their own anxiety or depression, and/or support me. I’m sure this blog post and the giving of these books today will open up even more. Timely as it is almost the end of Depression Awareness Week.

Today I’ll be facing strangers and handing them this book. Or I’ll be leaving it in places for people to find in the hope that they will let me know where it ends up. I will try to focus on those who may not read, but I think with this book I¬†can be a little more open and aim to speak to those who could be helped by this book in some way.

IMG_20160423_100708To end this on a lighter note, I’d like you to imagine me out there with these books. I have been ill with a cold/flu bug this week which has left me with no voice. I can only whisper. Imagine me walking around a nearby town, wrapped up in a ridiculous number of layers, speaking to strangers in a whisper about depression and reading. I’d laugh already but that might start a coughing fit.

I promise photos, stories, and more World Book Night celebrations on here later…

Good things come in…fours?

Seasons, cardinal directions, card suits, limbs… Okay, so I’m scratching around and breaking the rule of three. Normally I happily live by that superstition but you have to celebrate when there’s more good things around. Here are a four great things that I wanted to share with you this week.

 

Library Friendship

Friends of British LibraryThis to me is the most wonderful of gifts. My parents purchased this for me for my birthday at the start of February. Having enjoyed the last exhibition on the Gothic Imagination, and the current one on the anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, the prospect of a year of opportunities there does make me extraordinarily happy, along with the chance to make the most of the member’s room when a spare seat in a peaceful place to write is needed. If you want to find out more, visit¬†http://support.bl.uk/.

The Tiniest Literary Magazine 

Matchbook StoriesThe latest issue (number four) of Matchbox Stories arrived exquisitely packaged up from Book Ex Machina. I will be honest, this was an on a whim purchase but I’m so pleased I did. The four tiny stories by Ali Smith, Etgar Keret, Marti Leimbach and Frances Gapper are brilliant. Full of wit and wonder, these micro-tales left me thinking. Thinking of all the possibility there is in so few words, and the power that can be contained in no more than five sentences. If you’d like your own set then visit their site here.

Sublime Beginnings

Word Factory
Photo credits: James Lawson http://www.james-lawson.co.uk

Word Factory‘s year began on Saturday. Although Marina Warner could not be with us, and we all send our best wishes to her, the evening was a wonderful start to the year. I’ve written about how proud I am to be a part of Word Factory before, and although I have had to step away to concentrate on my collection in the past couple of months it still continues to be a great source of community, understanding, and inspiration. If you haven’t been before do let me know, I’d love to introduce you into the family.

Beautiful Monsters

Mslexia 69I have been subscribed to Mslexia for a good few years now. I’ve seen them refresh their design before to ensure they stay engaged with their readership and this one is no different; beautiful inside and out. It offers features which cut into what the industry and writers are thinking about, how-to advice from exercises to inspire to ways to reconnect with your writing and reading communities. The showcased stories are always worth reading – this month, Ana Salote’s left me chilled as the layers of meaning sunk in. Their website is also a mine of information so pop along and find out what you’re missing.

 

 

Dear Library

 

This is one of my prized possessions. I’ve wanted to share it and my letter to libraries for a little while but today is the right time.

Happy National Libraries Day!

LibraryCard

I’m not sure what day or year I was given this, but I do remember it.
I remember the librarian saying this is yours.
I remember feeling the weight of the responsibility – I would be responsible for the books I borrowed, it said so on the card.
I remember the day that I realised that I could read the smaller books on the grey metal shelves rather than the bigger books wedged in colourful hand-height wooden boxes.
I remember reading competitions in the summer holidays that encouraged me to lie in the sun and read all day.
I remember late fines because I didn’t want to give certain books back.
I remember reading books on all the things I couldn’t dare to ask about.
I remember the first time I moved from the children’s section into the corridor between there and the adult part of the library. This in between space would now be called young adult. I think I may have read every book on those shelves.
goodbonesI remember finally looking on shelves I had bypassed for years for another Margaret Atwood book because I had craved more after reading The Handmaid’s Tale at A-level. It was this book which would become the first short story collection I asked for as a present because I had taken it out of the library so many times.
I remember hours lost and so much gained.

All of this in one building. A million worlds. I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries. What I understand about myself, the world, my past and my future, would not be possible without libraries.

I first wanted to write a post about my relationship with libraries since I listened to Ali Smith talk so animatedly about her own relationship with libraries just after new collection of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories, came out in November. In the time that it took her to write and collate these stories, seven years, over a thousand libraries have gone. It is a fact that never ceases to astound me.

I could be called a hypocrite. I don’t visit my library as often as I could. The one in my small town is tiny but serves the community very well. I do however have cards for libraries in three counties now so I have access and I know how important access is to so many of us. I am lucky that I can afford to buy as many books as I do. I am immensely proud of my own shelves at home. But I see libraries in new ways now. It has always been a place to ‘be’ and I do use them for writing as well as reading but now I can see how it will shape new lives in my life. From the sing-alongs on a rainbow of carpet with my best friend and her little one, to the conversations with my 12 year old god-daughter about the books she is exploring whilst we educate each other on the great and good of various canons.

The #libraryletters are flying in now, but my favourite so far is Meg Rosoff’s which the Guardian featured in their article yesterday. Please feel free to share your letters in the comments.

Meg Rosoff
To Whom It May Concern:

Welcome to the library
where
no one will tell you what to read
or tell you what to think.
No one will bother you
Or bully you.
No one will require a report;
you don’t have to revise.
You can spy
Draw a picture.
Or sleep.
You can write.
Or wander.
Ask advice
ask for help
think anything
everything
or nothing at all.
No one will stop you.
No one will even try.
Meanwhile
a book
over there
on a shelf
will be glancing at you sideways
getting up the courage to
ask you out
make you laugh
make you cry
make you fall in love.
I’m trying to write a book like that now.
In a library.
Love,
Me

Resources that rescue

This afternoon I’ve been lured into the depths of the internet whilst working on¬†the next stages of some new stories. Normally I would later bully myself, as many of us do, on the procrastination of this act. Should I really be watching these videos, reading these articles, when I should be writing? Today, however, I am going to celebrate this wandering off the page and onto the screen.

As may be obvious now, I am obsessed with fairy tales, myths, magic realism; their function and imaginations. They feed my work, and free my mind. If I’m not reading stories then I am often dipping into the theory that works to bring further understanding to these tales.

Whilst reading an email from the London Review Bookshop (one of my favourite places), I came across their YouTube channel and the video of¬†Edmund Gordon introducing¬†Angela¬†Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This of course led to the leapfrog onto other videos and I found this video which has delighted me this afternoon whilst thinking on my stories.

I desperately wanted to go to this event last year but it sold out very quickly, so I’m thrilled¬†that the British Academy have shared it in full on their channel. It might have been naive of me not to have already made the most of these resources, but it is something that has rescued me today.

If this introduction to fairy tale and Marina Warner’s expertise is something that interests you too, then you might like to come along to the Word Factory events next month where she will be leading a masterclass and then reading at the evening salon on 27 February.

The last and the first

First resolution of the new year: to¬†blog more frequently, more immediately. Less¬†thinking about what I should be writing here, more of the ‘here’s what I want to share right now’.

Which leads to the second resolution: review every book I read. It’s only polite, for each author provides me¬†with something which could be returned. Sometimes my reviews are written in full, but more often they are shared briefly on social media or spoken about with fellow readers.

So with that in mind, here is my last review of 2015 and the first of 2016.


thebeesThe Bees
by Laline Paull

This is¬†a beautiful novel that I happily spent a day or so inhabiting Flora 717’s hive world. I know a fair amount about bees from friends and relatives who keep them, but the journey that this novel takes enabled me to explore the facts as well as an imagined world. The deeper parallels with our current society, feminism, balance, understanding the worlds we inhabit made this an incredible read rather than a flight of fantasy.

sladehouseSlade House by David Mitchell
I read Slade House in one sitting, just over 4 hours, because I couldn’t stop reading. I was gripped. The journey through time held my belief with characteristic detail; the repetitive elements were familiar rather than grating. It held the same magic that the journey into The Secret Garden did for me as a child, but with a deeply gothic and unnerving layer. I am certain the attic in Slade House will stay with me, and many others, just as the one at Thornfield in Jane Eyre and the prison that holds the narrator of¬†The Yellow Wallpaper.

Which allows me to conclude with my final book related resolution. Focus on my to-read pile and read for me. This allows me to ignore¬†the current trend for reading challenges that part of me would like to take on but the bigger part wonders what is the point? I understand where it is used to engage new readers, but when you already read widely and often I don’t understand the need to pressurise the reading process. Yesterday I shared a link from Pam Mcllroy. She asks, when did reading become a competitive sport?¬†I reposted the link because I felt that she understood my take on why we read without the how we should read. A more personal resolution is to avoid the negativity of should¬†at all costs. And then of course I went and read a book in 4 hours.

Christmas stories from Word Factory

Here’s a little present, from me to you. Or maybe it is a present from them to me. Either way, I am grinning.

At the start of December, Word Factory took part in the Waterstones Piccadilly Christmas event. The store was packed with shoppers, writers, entertainers, lovers of all things book shaped and more.

So here is the recording of my story. If you missed it, enjoy. If you caught it, thank you for supporting me and everything that Word Factory does.

And after you have watched this one, please watch the rest of the team and their wonderful readings. It really was a gift of a night.