Literary Must-Reads…

RusbridgeSmithMcGregor
…from 2012 and coming in 2013.

As we shuttle towards the new year, here’s some recommendations to add to your library.

(come on, you know those Christmas pennies are burning a hole in your pocket).

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like YouJon McGregor
For those whose new year resolutions revolve around reading a short story every day, start here. Sarah Hall describes this collection of stories as “strange and lovely masterpieces”, for me they are things of wonder, unusual beauty and inspiration.

The Bellwether RevivalsBenjamin Wood
This novel is astounding, simply astounding. The Bellwether Revivals is an intricately written exploration of an outsider, Oscar, entering the strange yet fascinating world of the Cambridge student family of the Bellwethers. The characters stay with you long after the pages are closed, and the fantastic and real world of the musical and medical opens your eyes to new possibilities and realities.

RookJane Rusbridge
Another musically inspired novel, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel Rook is simply stunning. You are dropped into the deep and muddy depths and allows you to explore the characters’ like hidden artifacts with the changing perspective of time. There’s much more information on Rook on the review and Q&A posts on this blog.

Artful – Ali Smith
As always, Ali Smith strives to ensure her work is not constrained by restrictive boxes for genre and style. Artful is a collection of essays intermingled within fiction, full of inspiring ideas and information as well as a little bit of the fantastic with a creative view of change and handling love and loss. I’ll be writing another post on this shortly as I think this is perfect for any literary writers, as well as generally being an insightful read.

Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud – ed. Jonathan Taylor
Stories are made to be heard, and this fantastic collection is another to dive into for the New Year. This collection includes stories by: Judith Allnatt, Jo Baker, Claire Baldwin, David Belbin, Kathleen Bell, Will Buckingham, P. J. Carnehan, Ailsa Cox, Katy Darby, Louis De Bernieres, Vanessa Gebbie, Denise Hayes, Tania Hershman, Jane Holland, Panos Karnezis, Hanif Kureishi, Joel Lane, Emma J. Lannie, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, Adele Parks, Simon Perril, Alexandros Plasatis, Kate Pullinger, Adam Roberts, Catherine Rogers, Lee Rourke, Salman Rushdie, Gemma Seltzer, Robert Shearman, Felicity Skelton, Karen Stevens, Jonathan Taylor, Maria Taylor, Sara-Mae Tuson, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Michelene Wandor, Aimee Wilkinson. A long list, and I for one cannot wait to hear as many of the stories aloud at the launch on the 8th January 2013 at The Betsy Trotwood.

Born WeirdAndrew Kaufman
“The Weirds have always been a little off, but not one of them ever suspected that they’d been cursed by their grandmother.” Blessings that are really curses take their part in the five Weird children’s lives, and they resolve reunite the family and all their “blursings” before their grandmother dies, properly this time. This novel, due to be published on 3rd January is simply, but strangely affecting, it plays with language and possibilities until they are reality.

Short Circuit: a Guide to the Art of the Short Story – ed. Vanessa Gebbie
This second edition of the original guide to writing will be published on 15th April 2013, with new essays to bring up to date insight into the world of the short story. Each essay from a writing expert discusses their writing processes, whilst they share tried and tested writing exercises alongside lists of published work they find inspirational.

So these are my recommendations, but what are yours?

Rook’s Journey: Q&A with Jane Rusbridge

Today Jane Rusbridge, author of The Devil’s Music and her latest novel Rook, joins me to provide insight and understanding into her literary world.

Alexa Radcliffe-Hart: I had the fortune to be taught by Jane and one of the main writing points she impressed on us was that of following your intuition and your obsessions. I remember seeing Jane at WordFest, Cambridge’s Literary Festival, around two years ago where her then obsession was rooks – look where this has led her! Jane, how did the rook obsession begin?

Jane Rusbridge: My ‘obsessions’ give me clues as to what to write about. Or perhaps that’s too self-justifying? Perhaps it’s just that I hugely enjoy finding out more about random things, and the unconscious ‘prompt’ theory is just an excuse. Whichever it is, research into something new seems to allow space for synchronicity to works its magic.
My preoccupation with rooks grew from noticing them busy building nests in the trees overhead as I drove to and from work one spring. I asked my husband if there were more that year for some reason. He said no.  He isn’t that keen on them, being a farmer, so he had a bit of a rant which included some stories about the pet rook his mother kept in the kitchen when he was a child. He hated that rook.
I read Mark Cocker’s eloquent book Crow Country , published that summer, and found his passion for corvids infectious. Cocker set me off to search Norfolk for the place he describes – without naming – where you can see thousands and thousands of rooks come in to roost. Standing beneath a sky beating with wings, surrounded by the rooks’ exuberant cacophony, was exhilarating. I wanted to capture that for my final scene.
A week or so later, in Bosham church, I saw the baby bird depicted on the memorial stone for Cnut’s daughter. It looked to me like a baby rook. And so it began …

ARH: Which just shows how much beauty and inspiration can be found in synchroncity, given the chance. I’m fascinated with the process of imprinting that underlies within the novel, was the purposeful, i.e. did you research this particularly, or did it naturally occur?

JR: On the whole, I dislike birds in captivity and have never handled a tame rook. However, we used to incubate and hatch duck eggs when the children were small, so I have witnessed birds imprinting at first hand. The ducklings would greet the girls when they came home from school and follow them around the garden, peeping madly.
Esther Woolfson, in Corvus: A Life with Birds, describes how her imprinted rook behaves towards her. Unless you are prepared to commit to that relationship in the way she has, it would be cruel to take one on as a pet, for whatever reason. A rook can live for 30 years – it’s not just for Christmas.

ARH: The parallels that are drawn between Nora and Rook are exquisite and heart rendering. A silent rook would not survive as Nora cannot without music. How did Nora’s characterisation as a cellist develop?

I was a musical child, playing the piano from age about 5 and later the flute; singing in various choirs. At 12, something happened and, for whatever reason, my confidence vanished. I more or less stopped playing. When I started writing Rook, I was reading neurologist Oliver Sach’s book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. It got me thinking about our mental connection with music, and I’m guessing my own loss, combined with reading Sach’s case studies, could be why the first thing I knew about Nora was that she was a musician who had thrown in her career.
She was a concert pianist, until someone told me the cello is the instrument closest to the human voice. This was a bit of a nuisance. I knew nothing at all about the cello. But she had to be a cellist because, at the beginning of the novel, Nora is ‘silenced’ by her experience – just as Rook has been – and her story untold. She won’t get her ‘voice’ back until she plays again.  

ARH: It’s the characters that make you work the hardest as a writer that make you the most passionate. As a reader of Rook, one of my favourite characters is Harry, with his silent strength and colourless paintings. The use of colour throughout is clearly important from the lack of in Harry’s paintings, Rook’s black plumage and the eyes that haunt and follow Nora: “colours spray like exploding dahlias”. How and why is colour important to you as a writer?

JR: Our relationship with colour is another ongoing preoccupations of mine.  I have a big ‘thing’ about cobalt blue – why on earth is that? What does that shade of blue ‘do’ to me? And then there are colour ‘fads’: at the moment it’s grey-green everywhere: doors, windows, skirting boards, garden furniture, crockery in Ikea…
Though at first not intentional, once I’d noticed that black/white had become a kind of motif, with the rooks and swans, and Harry’s sol y sombra, the colour thread was developed consciously with redrafting as a way of sewing the various narrative strands together a little more.  And the book, in more ways than one, is about being haunted by ‘shadows’, about living a ‘colourless’ life.

ARH: Your preoccupations clearly make your writing all the stronger and as a reader, we too are drawn in. There is beautiful imagery between the rookery and the church, the deathly atmosphere and abandonment almost interchangeable between the two. And of course there is the depth of the historical facts and archaeological background which is delicately woven in. Research must have been vital to the novel. How did you find out about these subjects and research them?

JR: Research was literally ‘vital’ to the novel in the sense that it brought the story to life. I began in Bosham church with a pamphlet written by local historian John Pollock, who argues that a stone coffin unearthed in the 50s contains Harold II’s remains. And then, as I experimented with scenes and characters and voices, I read widely: the church archives, which were full of stories; about Saxon warriors, the Godwins, and Bosham’s nautical history ; about rooks, cellists and mud.

ARH: It’s wonderful to hear that within research, you can follow so many paths in order to develop your writing and the characters. Even mud!
As a writer, I found it was important how Nora’s thoughts spring up from the narration to hang in the air, ever present. The swift manoeuvre of past and present guides the reader through Nora’s mind without force or confusion to the reader; shrinking both time and distance. My last question, what advice would you give to writers looking to tackle such expanses of time and information whilst relaying such interesting characters?

JR: I started, as I usually do, with writing random scenes and no firm idea of the characters.  With Rook, there seemed to be many stories vying for attention. I played about, experimenting with the 3rd person, thinking about which tense to use for the bulk of the narrative, finding out about my characters.
We are often ‘told’ not to this with a first draft, but I edit imagery, words and sentences as I go along. Getting the language as good as I can manage helps me think better. I discovered that when Nora distanced herself from something, it worked best in the past tense, whereas Ada’s memories of her past are often so vivid to her they take over, so need to be told in the present tense to suggest that.
It’s tedious when people make pronouncements about the present tense being a ‘fad’. We have different tenses, why would we not use them? Why should we not try them out as tools? The present tense is nothing new. Not liking novels written in the present tense is merely a question of personal taste.  In Rook, I wanted to maintain fluidity between past and present tenses as way of suggesting, through form, the connections between Nora, Ada and Edyth, whose stories are connected even though separated by time.
My advice? The chaos of a first draft can be frightening but don’t let that stop you. Make a mess, experiment. Allow yourself time to see how things come together as you write.

ARH: Wow, that’s excellent advice! Thank you so much for giving us insight into the writing process as well as Rook.

Jane can be found at www.janerusbridge.co.uk, on Twitter and Facebook. Rook can found at Amazon, Waterstones and hopefully your local independent bookshops too!

If you’d like to read my review of Rook, please check it out and feel free to add your comments!

Take flight with Rook

If you follow me on Twitter, or are friends with me on Facebook, you may well have noticed me making a fair amount of noise about a new novel. And there is good reason for it, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel, Rook, is quite simply stunning.

The novel drops you into the deep and muddy depths and allows you to explore the characters’ like hidden artefacts with the changing perspective of time. I found that Nora’s story is displayed from everyone else’s view – Issac’s teachings, Eve’s all seeing eyes, Ada’s secrets – even though she is central to the novel and leads the third person perspective naturally.

“She has the familiar sense of being behind glass, flattened into a reflection.”

The musically inspired descriptions, even when Nora is not present, allows her presence to be felt throughout Rook. The way in which the dialogue flows from summaries into direct speech draws the reader into the intimate conversations without redirection. Colour, along with music, features heavily – from Rook’s black plumage, Harry’s colourless paintings and the eyes that haunt and follow Nora.

“colours spray like exploding dahlias”

Following the final breakdown of her relationship with Issac, Nora hides in the relative safety of her family home however she finds that her mother is determined to change for the future although this leads to a digging up of the past. The puzzling child-adult shifting between Nora and Ada pulls you into their relationship, with a subtlety which provides familiarity to many reader’s own experiences I’m sure. The unfolding of other relationships allows you to discover the new with Nora whilst the hidden past is also uncovered although at a different pace.

“Sometimes when our present is a little too empty, our past move in to fill the gaps.”

The swift manoeuvre of past and present guides the reader through Nora’s mind without force or confusion. Nora’s thoughts spring up from the narration to hang in the air, ever present. By shrinking both time and distance, Rook is a novel that speaks to generations and educates on both historical fact and fiction whilst exploring characters that speak directly to you.

There’s so much more I wish to say about this novel and I hope to bring Rook insights direct from Jane Rusbridge in the coming weeks, but in the mean time – celebrate today’s publication day by purchasing the beautiful Bloomsbury Circus paperback edition.

Is there anyone out there?

When I received this quarter’s Mslexia, I laughed. Very loudly.

Continuing Mslexia’s feature of guest editors, Suzi Feay and the Mslexia team have made a bold statement with the June/July/August edition. Featuring two gingerbread women, clearly in love, with the title “Dyke writers. What’s the problem?” As thought provoking and daring as the title is, my laughter subdued as I read the Agenda article.

Feay has shed light on the fact that there is a problem: not enough “dyke writing”. Although I identify as a lesbian, I am a writer, editor and reader: not a lesbian writer, -editor, -reader. Perhaps the lack of lesbian writers (lesbian author, lesbian content) is because more women are identifying themselves in a similar manner (?).

My own writing focuses on characters and their development no matter their sexuality. However, when writing my current project, I was struck by my hesitation to make another character a lesbian – I already had one featured and even that was thrown into question. Perhaps I should make my characters more obvious but in a “this is normal” way? I find it appalling that I actually have to think of ways to make the relationship/sexuality normal, by which I mean that the other characters will not have some kind of opinion or commentary on it. The natural assumption is for lesbian characters to maintain the stereotyped other-ness, or use sexuality as a twist within the character development. As Feay says,

I was startled to find novels in which lesbian characters were stereotyped as murderers or or deranged, or in which a character’s sexuality turned out to be the ‘twist’ in the story (as opposed to an unremarkable aspect of someone’s life).

*p.9 Mslexia JUN/JUL/AUG 2012

There are writers, of course, who create lesbian characters who do not fit into stereotypes as above. However, I agree with Feay, they are the same few again and again.

Which leads me to my main interest in the article; there is a distinct lack of “L in LGBT” writers going for the Polari prize and others, as well as within mainstream publishing. From an indie perspective, I’ve noticed the same whilst forming a long-list of authors to get involved with the Fruit Bruise Press anthology – there are a lot of male writers with diverse backgrounds getting in contact with us, but very few women; whether lesbian or not. At Fruit Bruise, we’re working towards promoting and supporting the transgressive, emergent, and excluded writers and I’d love to hear from lesbian writers who would like to be involved with the anthology and future programme for literary development. Following from Feay’s question, I’d like to ask “Is there anyone out there?

Discover more about Suzi Feay and her writing here: www.suzifeay.com. And find out more about Mslexia and the latest edition: www.mslexia.co.uk. If you would like to know more about Fruit Bruise Press and discuss writing with us, please contact me below or at lexi @ doghornpublishing . com.

A chance to view life Through the Eyes of Strays

Released into the big bad world yesterday, Through the Eyes of Strays is a collection of Glen Krish’s best short stories from the past twenty years. Full of speculative, gut-grabbing, mind-expanding tales, this is a collection you will not want to put down – I’m certain there is something for everyone in this!

The collection is described as:

Misanthropes and misfits.

Society’s loners observing, and in some cases, changing the status quo.

An agoraphobic woman is forced to face a ruined world after months of isolation.

A father faces the death of a child in a world where genetic perfection has done away with such traumas.

A lovelorn man searches for the perfect woman and, ultimately, finds himself.

A nameless drifter absorbs people’s pain, the filth rotting their souls, until one day he can no longer bear this burden alone.

In these and many more stories, Glen Krisch crosses genres, disrupts and disfigures them, until something entirely its own rises from this alchemical brew.

Published by Dog Horn Publishing, it was a fantastic project to work with and edit, Glen has introduced me to characters and hidden stories that cannot be found elsewhere.

You can purchase the trade-size print edition from Lulu. If you’d like to find out more about Glen’s work, check out his website and blog.

Do you Flash?

So today is officially National Flash Fiction Day. I would hope/think that most of you have heard of Flash Fiction; it’s a growing form which is now taking place in prizes and competitions across the country as well as in literary collections and magazines – in the online and offline world it is finding it’s feet. The official day was created by Callum Kerr, who immersed himself in this new form, creating a micro-story every day for a whole year – his talents are found at flash365.blogspot.com.

There seems to be a lot of debate about the form’s literary and/or artistic merit (when is there not some form of debate in the world of literature) however I think that not only is an artistic pursuit and can become beautiful literary (and genre) creations, it can also be the best form to use to hone your skills; ensuring that every word on the page (or paragraph) counts.

If you want to try your hand at Flash Fiction, remember, I’ll be running a short (well it would have to be…) course on Flash at Swanwick Writer’s Summer School in August this year – one of many courses and workshops to be explored during the writing-packed week: think about the number of skills you’ll walk away with in 6 days!

Want to know more?
Take a dip into the world of Flash on the NFFD website. There was a fantastic article in The Guardian on Monday by David Gaffney, and look out for more stories published today – favourites that were posted on the article. Also if you’re tweeting or facebooking, get involved with the fun and games there too.

The Tour of The Coward’s Tale

This month has been an exciting one, and today I am honoured to talk with Vanessa Gebbie about her début novel The Coward’s Tale. This inspirational novel was launched in paperback yesterday, as well as being available in hardback and e-book.

Alexa Radcliffe-Hart: Hi Vanessa, thank you for joining us and agreeing to answer my questions as well as those sent in.

Vanessa Gebbie: Hi Lexi, and thanks you so much for asking me. It is great to be here.

ARH: Firstly, I’d love to tell you how much I enjoyed The Coward’s Tale. I found myself lost in the interwoven stories and unwilling for the connections to end!

VG: That’s really lovely feedback… thank you!

ARH: There are so many questions I could ask, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the beautiful unfolding of the novel for those who haven’t read it yet. Within The Coward’s Tale, the storytelling meta-narrative gains importance throughout the novel; did you originally set out to provide this additional layer to the novel, or was it a natural development?

VG: No, I didn’t ‘set out’ to do anything. The novel began as a simple series of stories exploring the reasons why so many in the town were strange in some way,  even though in other ways they are perfectly usual members of a small community – the window cleaner, the bank clerk, deputy bank manager, the teacher, the librarian, the undertaker, out of work miner, and so on.
As I wrote more and more, enjoying them hugely, some (the gas-meter emptier’s tale, for example, had me laughing out loud on occasion, much to the consternation of my family) each backstory seemed to go back to the same incident – the collapse of Kindly Light Pit.  It wasn’t until I began to concentrate on the overarching narrative, that of Laddy and Ianto, that Ianto’s own story had to come out. I think I had been avoiding meeting that one head on – it was hard to acknowledge – I love Ianto, as I love all the characters.
His story is the real catalyst – he has been the repository of the town’s history and has been sharing stories with whoever will listen. And it really isn’t until his own story is added to the mix that the whole series takes on a completely different resonance. He is ‘released’ in some measure, freed, after sharing his story. Just as the author was freed and was able to finish the novel. (!)

ARH: The gas-meter emptier’s story had me laughing out loud too, which proved an important balance for some of the more heart-rending tales.
Laddy is spellbound by the stories that are woven by Ianto, yet questions their truth because of the “stories” told to him by his parents. This transformation in innocence is a role reversal of the adult characters that search for the innocence they’ve lost. Do you believe that there is always innocence within storytelling?

VG: I wonder if there has to be a certain innocence – in that as soon as a writer exhibits a judgement one way or the other, the story is weighed down with a ‘message’? But I think I mean innocence as in ‘emotional honesty’  – otherwise a story does not work as well as it might.
But maybe more importantly, doesn’t the writer need an eye that sees things afresh, and the ability to use those impressions well so that the prose is fresh, not predictable?
Being able to see things in a new way – that is a childlike quality, akin to innocence – I don’t mean that the writing is childlike, but the ability to stand outside the normal responses, and rethink, re-experience, as if for the first time? 

ARH: I think that is where the strength of Laddy’s characterisation is, the way in which he provides the viewpoint with emotional honesty, which allows other characters to “re-experience” as well as the reader.
The use of the lilting Welsh accent within the narration as well as the character dialogue immerses the reader throughout the multiple characters, as well as providing fluidity between overall story and the individual stories. Was it straightforward to write with accent/dialect and did you find any difficulties in the process?

VG: To begin with, when the process first started, I was unaware. The first section I wrote (now The Clerk’s Tale) was fine, it was set in the south Wales I remembered from childhood, and the rhythms and sounds came back easily. It won a nice prize at Bridport. But as soon as I became conscious of it, and tired to reproduce the lilts, I went too far.
Luckily, I had an important bit of feedback on a subsequent section from the novelist Catherine Merriman, who said the voice was ‘like Yoda’ in places. I had no idea who or what Yoda was. When I discovered, I was horrified! But that was diamond feedback, and it led to me making every effort to return to my original voice.

ARH: There is such a fine line with many accents aren’t there? But the Yoda advice is perfect!
The Clerk’s Tale is not the only experience you have in writing award winning short stories, and The Coward’s Tale felt like an exploration between the short story and novel forms, especially with interwoven tales of so many characters which ultimately tells the tale of the coward. Was the novel evolved from one short story or many? At what stage did you know it was a novel you were writing?

VG: Honest answer? I was plagued with doubt the whole way, really. Not an easy ride, this one. I didn’t want to write a single narrative, and my agent (Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath) encouraged me to write it as a novel, not a series of stories.  It started with The Clerk’s Tale, referred to above – I was signed by Euan on the strength of that story.
But whereas I knew what I was doing (more or less!) with the stories, the creation of and positioning of the overarching narrative and the interweaving that was necessary to create a different workable structure, was difficult – I needed help with that. Thanks to the Arts Council, to whom I shall be eternally grateful, I was able to have a period of mentoring from the terrific novelist Maggie Gee. I can’t sing her praises highly enough. I think we made a good team – very different writers – but something worked!

ARH: Thank you for your honesty. It’s brilliant to hear more on how creative mentoring can bring new light and understanding to writer’s work.
You provide the wonderful #storygym on Twitter to help writers all over the world be inspired with the writing prompts. Where do you find your own writing inspirations? Are there any particular writers you go back to again and again?

VG: I’m a very visual writer. I respond best to images, and to lines of poetry that are image-based, lyrical prose, lovely sounds too. I go back and back and back to the works of William Golding. But then I also love W G Sebald, and that’s hardly in the same ballpark! Female writers too – I’d pick Arundhati Roy, and a new writer, Suzanne Joinson, about to hit the shelves with a stunning novel called ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ (Blooomsbury, July). Her prose is really extraordinary and sets connections firing in this writer’s head.
I wake up every morning and tweet a #StoryGym prompt – it’s about the first thing I do after cleaning my teeth! Some of them are just nuts (not my teeth, the prompts…) – but it is lovely to hear from writers who are using them, and especially when a story has been published, or even won something. of course, that’s nothing to do with me, it is the skill of the writer – but it is a nice feeling to know that it started with a few words on Twitter.

ARH: Sometimes the most unusual of prompts can provide the best writing, huh!
Have you ever been inspired to write from the viewpoint of a character that you disliked? And if so, could you describe the writing process around this?

VG: Oh yes, of course. I can dislike things about someone, usually what they do – and still be intrigued by them, wonder why they are like that, how far they will go.  And more importantly, will they do something to redeem themselves. Example: I wrote a story (it’s in the collection, ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’) about a guy called Harry, in a story called Harry’s Catch. He’s done some fairly nasty things in his time – rape, for one. Now he’s old – the story explores his life, to the extent that I got quite fond of him in the end, even though he did something horrific almost at the end of the story…
Process-wise – I tend to focus on what the character does, rather than whether they can be judged as ‘loveable’ or not. People are never completely black and white, I guess. Human beings are complex animals, best to let them be that on paper too.

ARH: I agree, it’s that grey area within people and characters than can bring the most out on the page. The grey area questions continue…
How does an author create a sentence in which words resonate with a reader, to the extent that he or she describes a feeling exactly – not a physical sensation but a private thought and/or emotion, that when read, makes one realise that one is not alone in this world? This may be a subjective experience for each of us and is not replicated for all readers, or is it?

VG: A really interesting question – I’ll try to answer.
All a writer can do is observe life in all its facets, and use those observations in their work to build up an honest and emotionally true world which resonates so much with readers (hopefully…) that it becomes ‘real’ in their heads. That means honest observation of one’s own emotions and feelings too.
So, when a character is experiencing something, thinking something, feeling something, you to some extent ‘relive’ the experience yourself, with the character, as you are writing. If you are that bound up with your characters (as I tend to be) the feelings will be strong – and all you can do is put them into the most honest words you can.
I think originality also comes into it. We might read something described in terms we’ve seen many times, before, and whereas we will ‘understand’ the message, maybe we won’t ‘feel it’. Whereas, if the language used is different, drawing original parallels – no clichés in similes, for example – we look at the familiar through fresh eyes. That’s a powerful thing to learn to do.
The rest is up to the reader. It’s not possible for a writer to touch everyone, for the simple reason that we bring our own life experiences along with us when we do anything, especially when we read – the words written by the writer will either touch us, or not, depending on our own ‘baggage’.  But emotional honesty is an important tool, here – and an ability to express the subtlest of emotions.
Hope that helps! And I award a copy of ‘The Coward’s Tale’ to this questioner. 

ARH: Thank you for choosing the winning questioner! I would like to congratulate Sally Carlow on winning the paperback copy of The Coward’s Tale!
Continuing with the writing questions, what is the worst assumption any aspiring writer can make about their work?

VG: That it is any good at all. I think the best position to start from is that your work is awful. If you are right – then great – guess what, with a bit of hard work you can learn to write well. If you are wrong, you are probably a genius. And there aren’t many of those…
Wait until someone who knows what they are talking about tells you your work is OK. That does not mean your mates, your parents, your partner, or the person at the writing group with the loudest voice (who had a story published somewhere ten years ago) or the administrator of a vanity publishing organisation. You will know in your heart when feedback means something. And you will know in your heart when it doesn’t.

ARH: Good and constructive feedback is something every writer needs. Along with this, what is the most important book any aspiring writer should keep by their side?

VG: NOT a how-to book – not even mine! You need books that make you want to write as well as that writer did. For me, it’s anything by William Golding. Poetry – John Donne at the moment. And it’s also worth keeping a few books that remind you how terrible some people’s work is – go and download a few free self-published e-books at random.

ARH: Yes, having that scale is definitely helpful! Continuing towards publication, what is the worst mistake any aspiring writer could make when submitting a proposal?

VG: Telling an agent it’s their lucky day, and they are being given a one-off chance to represent the next big thing since J K Rowling. And copying the proposal to every agent in the book.

ARH: Thank you for your honest answers, I’m sure a lot of writers will find this advice invaluable. Looking to the future, how do you plan for your next project? Is it planned or do you go with what inspiration and imagination provides you?

VG: The next project is under way, if you really mean the next novel? The working title is ‘Kit’ – it’s come directly out of The Coward’s Tale, and revolves round the same two main characters, Ianto and Laddy. A prequel/sequel – perhaps. It’s a difficult thing – I know more about this one, and am thus less able to explore as I go. It’s a challenge, and I will complete it. Whether it will be any cop is another matter!
But my overriding feeling is this – I’m not young. I spent six years writing The Coward’s Tale, but it was never the only thing on the boil, and I won’t now make the mistake of focussing on one thing only – what if it’s not right, or isn’t wanted? Besides, I’m a Gemini – I need to be able to flit from one thing to another. So whilst ‘Kit’ is the big project, I’m also doing a lot of other things.
Viz:

  1. Working on a short story commission for BBC Radio, to go out during Brighton Festival.
  2. Revamping ‘Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story’ for Salt Publishing’. Story, the art of story, is my first love. It’s a good book, used a lot on creative writing courses, and I want to make sure it stays up to date, doesn’t get tired like so many ‘how-to’ books do. ‘Short Circuit II’ will have additional chapters from stunning people like Scott Pack, Tom Vowler, Nicholas Royle, plus extended chapters by some of the contributors who had shorter pieces in the first edition. I chose well. Since writing their chapters for the first edition, many of the very successful, talented contributors have done even more amazing things in their careers – look! Graham Mort won the Edge Hill Prize. Carys Davies won the Olive Cook Award from The Society of Authors. Zoe King was elected Chair of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Alison MacLeod shortlisted for the National Short Story Award, and the BBC Short Story Prize.
  3. Continuing to learn about, write and publish poetry. Just finished a wonderful series of workshops led by poet Pascale Petit at Tate Modern.
  4. Acting as travel agent for a group of writers going on a tour of Arras and The Somme later in 2012, in the excellent company of military historian Jeremy Banning. That’s going to be a great trip – mirroring my own trip with him early in 2011, following The Swansea Pals to the Somme, Passchendaele and back to the Somme. Can you imagine what it must have been like for the lads who fought there in 1916, returning a couple of years later and finding they are fighting over the same ground where their friends died?
  5. Teaching – loads. Looking forward especially to a week-long short story workshop at the wonderful Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat, West Cork, Ireland – where I have been going to write my own stuff since 2005. I heard about the place via the Fish Publishing website – and took a chance and joined a creativity workshop – and have been going back at least twice a year ever since.
  6. Self-publishing a books of flash fictions with a friend, who is a terrific artist.

I think that’s probably enough!

ARH: Wow! That is a fantastic line-up of work; I personally can’t wait to see more of Ianto and Laddy’s tales!
Finally, I love your blog and website with its interactive design; particularly the musical map for The Cowards Tale where readers can find out excerpts about each of the characters. You also communicate with your readership through Twitter. How important do you feel interacting with fellow writers and your reading audience is in these ways?

VG: I’m glad you like the website – I love it too – it is the work of Roger Betts, a musician friend, although we’ve never met. It’s very creative – well, we’re meant to be creative beings – I despair when I see the same old same old on writers’ websites – c’mon, guys! Less meaningful mournful stares, huh?
Writing is a lonely occupation – interaction with other writers is great, and keeps me sane. And it is really lovely to be in touch with readers on Twitter, and on Facebook too. It’s very important for me! Keeps me grounded. There is not much point in writing if readers aren’t in the equation, after all.
Thanks Lexi – super questions, I have enjoyed tussling with this lot. Thank yofor having me, as we used to say after parties, when I was six!

Vanessa can be found at http://www.vanessagebbie.com, on her blog or on Twitter.
The tour has visited Claire King, Tania Hershman, and Sara Crowley so far, and with more to follow so please check out the full paperback party schedule here.

Fruit Bruise Press @ Alt.Fiction

For those of you following the news about Fruit Bruise Press since I first mentioned this new literary imprint for Dog Horn Publishing, this is a quick post to fill you in with some more information and remind you about Alt.Fiction which is coming up in two weeks time.

There is more information about Fruit Bruise Press on the Dog Horn Publishing website now, so please feel free to read more about what we’re looking for the in the way of submissions and what we hope to provide with the writing development and anthology project.

The first outing for Fruit Bruise Press will be at Alt.Fiction on Saturday 14th April. The workshop “Jumping boundaries and breaking rules” will be running from 4-5pm, serving as a taster for what is in store for the future. Based in Leceister over two days for this year, Alt.Fiction is now in it’s sixth year of brilliant events for readers and writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Although Fruit Bruise does not focus on genre specific fiction, we welcome one and all to our workshop to help you find new ways into your writing whatever your background! The team at Dog Horn Publishing will be on our stand over the weekend, so please feel free to drop by and have a chat with us about your work or the DHP books available!

If you’d like to find out more about Fruit Bruise Press, Alt.Fiction and what I’m planning for the workshop, take a look at the interview by Katie Shanks on Left Lion: the home of Nottingham Culture.

99 Reasons Why: an unseen ending

March is the month for hosting it seems! There will be a Q&A with Vanessa Gebbie next Friday, and this week I’d like to introduce you to 99 Reasons Why by Caroline Smailes.

Kate isn’t like 22 year olds. She’s got a job to do for her Uncle Phil. Each day, she spies on The Kevin Keegan Day Nursery across the road from her bedroom window, writing down all of the comings and goings in her notebooks. That’s how she spots her little girl in the pink coat. She likes her, and it isn’t long before Kate asks her mum to steal the girl for her. Plans are made. But then, quite unexpectedly, Kate flashes her breasts out her bedroom window at the little girl’s father. And that’s the reason why nothing will ever be the same again…

99 Reasons Why is a book with a difference, and it’s catching a lot of attention. It is only being published as an ebook and comes with 9 different endings which readers can navigate using multiple choice questions on your Kindle or via a spinning story wheel on your iPad or iPhone – ideal for those of you who started using the new iPad since the 16th! There are also two additional endings. One is the ending that will be handwritten by Caroline and auctioned for charity, and the other is here for your reading pleasure today!

If you haven’t already read 99 Reasons Why you can find it either for your Kindle on Amazon, or your iPad / iPhone on iTunes. And if you haven’t yet, but you have an urge to start at one of the possible endings…read on!

99: the reason why I was only worth ninety-nine quid

It’s been six days since the little girl in the pink coat went missing and me Uncle Phil’s in me bedroom.

We’ve been watching the little girl in the pink coat’s mam on the news. She was appealing to the public for witnesses.

‘Didn’t realise she had a mam,’ I says, looking at me telly.

‘Everyone’s got a mam, pet,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘She sold her story to The Sun,’ I says, looking at me telly.

‘Got a few quid,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘She wanted nowt to do with that bairn before all this,’ me Uncle Phil says, looking at me telly.

‘Do you know where she is?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘Belle?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.

I nod.

‘She’s safe,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘Your mam’s keeping an eye on her.’

‘Can I be her mam?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘No, pet, you’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘Can you make Andy Douglas come back, Uncle Phil?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

Me Uncle Phil shakes his head.

‘I love him,’ I tell me Uncle Phil.

‘Andy Douglas is your brother, pet. You didn’t seriously think Princess Di was your mam, did you?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.

I nod.

‘You’re a cradle snatcher just like your mam,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘Your mam miscarried when she found out I’d been banging Betty Douglas. Betty was expecting you,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I don’t speak.

‘When you was born, your mam went mad and I ended up buying you from Betty Douglas for ninety-nine quid,’ me Uncle Phil says.

‘Ninety-nine quid?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘I paid a hundred but got a quid change for some chips for your mam and dad’s tea,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘You bought me?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

I’m a little bit sick in me mouth.

‘It was the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘I got Betty Douglas pregnant straight away with Andy.’

‘I’m pregnant,’ I says to me Uncle Phil. ‘I’m pregnant with me brother’s baby,’ I says, and then I throws up on me purple carpet.

‘You’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘What am I going to do?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘You’re going to have the baby,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘Have me brother’s baby?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘Then I’m giving it to Betty Douglas to bring up,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘You what?’ I says to me Uncle Phil.

‘It’s the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘I can’t—’ I says to me Uncle Phil.

‘It’s either that or I’ll make you disappear,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I don’t speak.

I’m thinking, they’re all a bunch of nutters.

It is always the quiet ones

When someone (or rather a blog) goes quiet on you, it could mean that the author has

  1. fallen off the face of the earth (highly unlikely)
  2. forgotten that they have a website (again, unlikely, but then again, possible)
  3. been concocting mad plans elsewhere (when it comes to literary folk, it’s almost always this)

So, I’m finally back with exciting news about new projects that are forming for 2012!

I’ve been working with Adam and the team at Dog Horn for a little while now, focusing on the more literary works that come our way. Together, we’ve been spending the winter putting together proposals and applications and, well, generally being under the weight of paperwork. However, the best made plans are starting to bear fruit, of the bruised variety!

Fruit Bruise Press will be launched this year (in a more official manner shortly) as an imprint housed by Dog Horn Publishing. Fruit Bruise is a writer development and literature promotion programme dedicated to championing the transgressive, the excluded and the emergent. The focus for 2012 is to run workshops across the country to begin working with new, exciting and hidden voices that are out there hoping to be discovered, with the project culminating in the publication and launch of an anthology.

We’re kicking off the project, with a fantastic slot booked at Alt.Fiction on Saturday 14th April. The workshop “Jumping boundaries and breaking rules: Literary beginnings” will be running from 4-5pm as a taster for what is to come! Based in Leceister over two days for this year, Alt.Fiction is now in it’s sixth year of brilliant events for readers and writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Although Fruit Bruise does not focus on genre specific fiction, we welcome one and all to our workshop to help you find new ways into your writing whatever your background! The workshop is included in the cost of the weekend ticket, which if you purchase before the 1st February, it is available for a brilliant early bird offer of £30! There are so many inspiring guests, workshops, panels, and readings on at Alt.Fiction this year, so please check out what else you could be involved with!

There is so much still going on behind the scenes currently, so this is a sneak peek. If you’d like to know more about the Alt.Fiction workshop, or about the projects coming up for Fruit Bruise, please feel free to comment below or contact me at lexi@doghornpublishing.com. There are testimonials available here too if you wish to find out more about the courses and workshops I have previously run.