Friday, June 19, 2015

Flash Frontier - send us your science-themed flash stories!

I'm back from an amazing trip, will blog about it here soon - but in the meantime, I am a guest editor, along with the absolutely wonderful Kathy Fish (whose flash collection, Together We Can Bury It, sits by my bed so I can dip into it in times of need) for the September issue of New Zealand flash fiction online journal Flash Frontier, which we decided would have a science theme. So please wow us with your flash stories, up to 250 words, in some way using or inspired by science. We are open to all sorts and flavours of story, in any shape or form, so let your imaginations lead the way! Deadline is Aug 31st.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mi Madre Era Un Piano Vertical

Am still on my travels - and oh my, what wonderful travels they have been, Mexico was the most welcoming and magical! - but just had to share this with you: I woke up to see that my short short story is in today's El Universal, one of Mexican's daily newspapers, translated into Spanish! You can see it (or, if unlike me, you speak Spanish, you can read it) here... The title is Mi Madre Era Un Piano Vertical - guess which story!

I feel so honoured, we got so much press coverage, the short story writer as (temporary) celebrity! I know it'll never happen again so I just enjoyed it. Will blog more when I get home!

ADDENDUM: I missed that they have also published a translation of another of my stories, The Painter and The Physicist. 

Saturday, June 06, 2015


I'm delighted to be heading off to Mexico this week as one of two short story writers - together with Paul McVeigh - given the honour of being the first of a veritable slew of writers the British Council's sending to Mexico this year! We are each doing two events - one in Mexico City, and then I head to Monterrey and Paul to Tijuana. If you happen to be nearby, details are here! And on this lovely poster above, I believe (sadly, I speak no Spanish)!

I'm really looking forward to visiting a country I've wanted to visit for many many years, and learning more about Mexican literature, the short story in particular. I feel ashamed at how little I do know, partly because of how little we get in translation over here. I am immensely excited at meeting the writers I'm doing events with - Monica Lavin, Emiliano Monge and Atonio Ramos Ravillas.

I'm also delighted that this fabulous new anthology that I am honoured to also be in, Flash Fiction International, contains a disproportionately large number of Mexican writers. From this I suspect that I will find many flash fiction and short story sympathizers! I will report back. Promise.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Some Thoughts on Kindness, Energy Levels and Introversion

I haven't written a blog post like this for a while, an attempt to tie all my current thoughts together into some sort of whole (for which I will not claim coherence). I suspect that I might find out what it is I want to say through the writing of it, which is, often, how this writing thing works. So. Kindness. This is a concept, an action, that has become almost the most important thing for me, the thing I try and practice above all else. Kindness towards others, whether I know them or not, and - hardest of all - towards myself. When I say "kindness" it has deeper ramifications than just smiling, saying something nice, it is, for me, about dealing with other people ethically, mindfully. Hard to actually say more precisely what I mean by that, maybe because it's always evolving, which I think is how I want it to be.

But basically we know what kindness, thoughtfulness, mindfulness and compassion mean, in large terms. And when I say "practice", that is accurate because in my experience it takes practice, it takes vigilance, it is not my default, it takes work. We do seem to be programmed to be defensive, to look for a tribe to join and to privilege, rather than seeing everyone around us  - and further afield - as human beings in the same boat, with the same struggles. And, trying to be kind here to myself, I'm not going to come up with a list of excuses for why this is. It's easy to let go, lose sight.

The thing is, actively trying to change one's behaviour, to rewire the neural pathways so it might become more of a default action, takes energy. It is easy to keep driving in a straight line, on a well-paved road. Changing gear, turning the wheel, requires fuel. When I'm tired, stressed, not feeling well, it's far far harder to stick to my intentions. This is where the "Energy levels and Introversion" referred to in the title come in.

I discovered 2 years ago after reading Susan Cain's momentous book, 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking' that I am introverted. I had thought, for years and years, I was some kind of weirdo, a hermit, anti-social, because of my need to be alone for substantial amounts of time. I was made to feel this way when I first decided, at the age of around 27, that I couldn't live with flatmates, needed to live alone. The flatmate I was living with at the time couldn't understand this at all, I think she actually preferred to never be alone (which I can now understand a little better - and shows the need for more talk about introversion and extroversion!) and she took it so personally she never spoke to me again.

What I didn't understand then was that being alone is not just a lifestyle choice if you're an introvert, it's a physiological necessity. I thought I would pass this on in case you think you're an antisocial weird hermit too. Well, you might not be.

If you Google "introvert" this is the first definition that comes up: "a shy, reticent person." Well, if you met me - those of you who have - you wouldn't use those words. I can perform on stage, I can talk in front of large groups of people, I can teach workshops, go to parties (well, hmm) - I can, in other words, appear to be what we call "extrovert" - but the difference is that all these things, all these interactions, drain my energy. Whereas a more extroverted person gains energy from these same interactions. And it's a scale - if you're half way along it, you're an ambivert!

To quote from Susan Cain's website Quiet Revolution

introversion and extroversion lie at the heart of human nature. One scientist refers to them as “the north and south of temperament.”  When you make life choices that are congruent with your temperament—and allow others to do the same—you unleash vast stores of energy.  Conversely, when you spend too much time battling your own nature, the opposite happens: you deplete yourself.

And this isn't the same type of energy that can be replenished by getting a good night's sleep. I have some theories about the type of energy it is, I think it's to do with adrenaline, but I can't find any studies about this. I re-read Susan Cain's book the other day, and what stuck in my mind this time were the scientific studies about highly reactive babies versus non-reactive babies. The researcher had a theory that babies who reacted to every noise, every light, stimulus, would grow up to be introverts. And this turns out to be pretty much the case. I definitely feel that when I'm out and about, I don't do a great job of filtering - that sometimes I feel the world is shouting at me. I have trouble following conversations if there are more than 3 of us, I get easily distracted.

Reacting to many many stimuli takes energy. And perhaps we then need to be alone to replenish, but not just alone, "turned inward", which is what "introvert" actually means, so that we are not reacting at all, or doing the opposite of reacting, which is using whatever means we need to unreact.

This seems, for me and for others I've talked to, to involve a great deal of thinking. I think all the time. I think my way into trouble quite often, reading far too much into something, worrying about my own behaviour etc..., but then what's rather nice is I think my way through and out of it too.

Apart from the being alone and the thinking, I like to sit in corners when I am in cafes or events, to be able to observe without necessarily being seen. I'm awful at small talk (what a relief to know that there might be an "explanation" for that!). But when I have a deep conversation with someone, one-on-one, I can feel my energy reservoirs filling up!

Now, before I discovered this, 2 years ago, I think I was always depleted to some extent or other. I would get ill quite often. 15 years ago I was diagnosed with a thyroid condition, but I never believe this was the problem and stopped taking the medication. Now I think it was because I was ignoring the warning signs and getting severely depleted. And when "introvert burnout" happens, it's not like getting tired. It's like when that battery-operated Duracell rabbit's batteries start to run out - my limbs stop being able to move properly, my head is a fog, and I know quite soon I won't be able to speak full sentences. Sometimes I have the feeling of wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I'm a car with no petrol.

What a bloody relief to find out why and how to fill myself up! And now I know what it feels like to have my full energy, it's a kind of bliss! Of course, I still overdo it (hence the cough which has lasted about 8 weeks). I keep thinking, I can go out to one more poetry reading, I can teach one more student. But nope, I can't. And I suffer. And have to cancel 4 events or students.

Interestingly, I read an article that was circulating last week on the Huffington Post entitled 18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently. And many of them sound like introvert-type behaviours: daydreaming, observing everything, taking time for solitude, people-watching... I wonder if so many of my writer friends and I are introverts because we write, or we write to fill in all those hours we are alone... or - it's not that simple!

Anyway, being an introvert is not a diagnosis, not a personality disorder, not a problem at all. It's like being fair-skinned means I can't go out in the sun for long without suncream. That's just how it is. I can't go out too often without having to be alone (sometimes with the curtains shut during the day) so I can turn inwards. Up to 50% of the population of the US may be introverts, so it's probably something like that here too.

The point of all this is that when I am at full energy levels, everything - EVERYTHING - is easier. My thoughts don't spin real-life events into stories that have little basis in reality (I'm not talking about fiction-writing here, but about the monkey mind that persuades us of cause-and-effect where there may be none, generally to our detriment). I've got the energy to go against my instincts and stop for a split second before acting, before making a decision, to see if I am being true to the way I want to be in the world. That takes energy. I fail, a lot. I spend time thinking over - as the Stoics recommended - how I've dealt with people and what I can learn about being better. (I am a fan of the Stoics, and of Buddhism, although their approaches do diverge.) But I also try not to beat myself up for doing things "wrong". Because that's not kindness to me.

So, I guess what I am trying to say is this: paradoxically, in order to change my behaviour and be more like the way I want to be in the world, I have to first recognise and nurture the way I already am, the way I work best, in order to have the energy to change.

I'd love to hear your thoughts - on any of the above! 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Writing & Place with Melissa Harrison

It's been a while since I've invited anyone to fill in my Writing & Place questionnaire, but when Melissa Harrison's new book came out, I realised that it was the perfect thing to ask her to do - her novels are so much about place and nature, and I wanted to delve a little deeper! (Ok, to be honest, all writers have something interesting to say about writing & place and I am always wanting to delve a little deeper! More W&P guest blogs coming soon...) You can catch her in person at the Hay Festival this Monday, May 25.

Mel and I met as writers-in-residence at Gladstone's Library just over a year ago (and I believe I introduced her to the delights of flash fiction, which she proved rather good at!) Her first novel, Clay (Bloomsbury, 2013), had just won the Portsmouth First Fiction award and was chosen by Ali Smith as one of her Books of the Year, a rather ringing endorsement, eh! It was because of Mel that I started thinking about reading more nature writing, something that I think I'd not been attracted to - and this led to me reading/devouring H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which I am immensely glad about.

Mel's second novel, At Hawthorn Time, has just been published by Bloomsbury, and listen to what the Financial Times said! “Her skill is such that she has produced a vigorous and affecting hybrid… If Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald were to co-author a book with John Burnside and Adam Foulds, it might end up something like At Hawthorn Time." Nice, eh? So, here's the lowdown on this beautiful book, before we get to Mel herself:

Four-thirty on a May morning: the black fading to blue, dawn gathering somewhere below the treeline in the East. A long, straight road runs between sleeping fields to the little village of Lodeshill, and on it two cars lie wrecked and ravished, violence gathered about them in the silent air. One wheel, upturned, still spins. 

Howard and Kitty have recently moved to Lodeshill after a life spent in London; now, their marriage is wordlessly falling apart. Custom car enthusiast Jamie has lived in the village for all nineteen years of his life and dreams of leaving it behind, while Jack, a vagrant farm-worker and mystic in flight from a bail hostel, arrives in the village on foot one spring morning, bringing change. All four of them are struggling to find a life in the modern countryside; all are trying to find ways to belong.

Building to an extraordinary climax over the course of one spring month, At Hawthorn Time is both a clear-eyed picture of rural Britain, and a heartbreaking exploration of love, land and loss. It is out now, published by Bloomsbury, and has earned the admiration of Helen Macdonald, author of the multi-award-winning bestseller H Is For Hawk.

A limited-edition 10″ record is also available, featuring two pieces of music produced in response to the book and with an individually silk-screened and stitched sleeve by artist Lucie Murtagh.  Buy a copy here -->>

So, I asked Mel to respond in any way she liked to my four standard writing and place questions, and this is what she said:

Tania: Where are you?

Mel: I’m sitting in my garden in
Mel's Garden in Streatham
South London, in the sunshine, with my laptop on my lap. There’s a blackbird singing in the sycamore above me, and a smart little goldfinch helping himself to my bird feeder. My dog Scout is lying on the grass behind me, soaking up the sun. In a few minutes she’ll pick herself up reluctantly and move into the shade for a few minutes, then she’ll collapse again in the sun.

Although my rented flat is a little ramshackle around the edges, having a garden – being able to plant things and see them grow, being able to feed the birds and see them nest – has been transformative for me. It also meant that we could get a dog, which got me out exploring London’s green spaces – something that really fired me up to write my first book, Clay.

T: How long have you been there?

M: My husband and I have rented this flat for a decade now; I’ve lived in London for 18 years, always, with the exception of my first six months in the city, south of the river. I much prefer south London to north; there’s less money swilling about, which feels healthier to me, and by and large there’s a good mixture of nationalities and social groups, which to me is important. I’m worried that this is changing right across the Capital, though; Brixton, just up the road from me, is undergoing very rapid and very depressing gentrification.

I go through periods of wanting to leave London and live in the countryside (wherever that is) and then realising I’d miss the city. I grew up in a semi-rural area, and I spend a lot of time walking in places like Cumbria and Dartmoor; I write about nature, so I suppose it’s inevitable from time to time. I don’t think I idealise rural life, at least I hope I don’t; my second novel, At Hawthorn Time, is about the clash of narratives that we can fall prey to when it comes to “the English countryside”, which is a very complex, very powerful and often quite exclusionary idea: the dream of country living that a lot of people have is in stark contrast to the reality of a lack of jobs, lack of affordable homes, rural pubs closing and farms going under at a terrifying rate. But I would like to live among woods and fields and hear owls in the evenings and see water voles and adders. Each August I look after a friend’s house in Dorset for two weeks where I can do exactly that, and while I’m there the idyll can seem close enough to touch. But I know that I’d miss London, and I’d probably talk about it all the time. Being a Londoner is part of my identity now.

Being pulled in two directions, though, can be a productive state for a writer. Balancing differing ideas (and ideals), learning not always to look for certainty or resolution but to tolerate doubt, is a good exercise for the imagination. Life isn’t simple, and people are full of contradictions.

T: What do you write?

M: So far, I write long-form contemporary fiction. I have written a few short stories – and I love reading them – but I’m not convinced they are my natural métier. Perhaps with practice mine would improve.

I’ve also written a short non-fiction book about rain, which is in the pipeline. And I do quite a lot of journalism; I’m one of a team of five that writes the Nature Notebook in The Times each Saturday, and I review books for The Times and the Weekend FT, and do some other odds and sods.

In my twenties I worked as a copyeditor and proofreader, and now I am a production editor and sub, so the critical part of my brain is overdeveloped when it comes to being creative; I find it very hard to let ideas just flow, as my sentences are already being critiqued on the journey from brain to page. But it has a few advantages, one of which is that I’m good at the sort of focus and discipline writing for newspapers requires. And I turn in a very clean manuscript.

T: How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?

M: What I write is steeped in place, and also in the seasons. I couldn’t start something without knowing what time of year it was, because that would affect everything that was living and growing, and would fundamentally affect the setting. As for place, I need to know things like the soil type (so I know what kinds of woodlands it will have, or example, and what kind of agriculture). But I don’t have to be in a place at the time when I’m writing about it; it can be somewhere I know well, like Devon or Shropshire, or somewhere I have visited specifically in order to write about it, for instance the Cambridgeshire fens; I take a lot of photos when I’m out, and use them to put myself back in a landscape. Clay, though, was mostly written in south London, and very much inspired by the streets around my home – though I decided not to specify which city it was in the text, because I wanted people to imagine it taking place in their city, wherever that was, so that the book’s underlying message about the value of nature could have the widest possible reach. And it seems to have worked; I had people asking me to confirm it was set in both Birmingham and Manchester.

I write a lot at my desk at home, which is in our bedroom (I dream of a room of my own!) I also write on my laptop, sometimes at The Social in central London, just for a change – though when it’s fiction I struggle to write outdoors: it’s just too distracting! When I’m really wrestling with a scene I’ll often abandon computers altogether and sit with a notebook and pen and write out my thoughts longhand. It slows my brain down and forces me to focus; it also feels less ‘serious’ and more jotty, which can sometimes free me up.

Shilling Cottage, highly recommended by Mel!
I go on writing trips a couple of times a year, as my day-job allows (I work in-house at a magazine for three weeks a month, but every so often I get a two-week break because of how the calendar works). As well as the housesitting arrangement in Dorset there’s a tiny cottage in Devon that I
’ve rented three times now, off season when it’s cheap. Being totally alone for two weeks is intense. Sometimes it’s gone really well, and been incredibly productive; at other times I’ve found myself in an unpleasant mental state. I was at the Devon cottage in January this year, trying to start something set in that actual location. The work petered out and died, which was painful; but the time I spent there was valuable in other ways, and the things I did – climbing a hill at 5.30am to watch dawn rise, visiting a dairy farm and watching the milking – are turning out to be useful for something else.

As research for At Hawthorn Time I walked a section of the A5 north out of London, alone, for four days and three nights. It’s a trip one of my characters, Jack, who is a vagrant, makes, and I wanted to see what it was like – which turned out to be very different from how I’d imagined it. It was also a really valuable insight into how exhausting it is always to be an object of curiosity, never to fit in. One of my jobs, as I see it, is to defamiliarise the English landscape (which includes cities); to help people see places anew, and to jog them out of the anthropocentricism which we’re all of us guilty of, and which presents the world to us only in terms of human priorities. Relating differently to the natural world is key in finding ways to protect it, as well as being personally transformative; so for me, not fitting in – not taking place for granted – is vital.

Thank you so much, Mel - and for some more inspiring words, here she is giving the recent Coleridge Lecture for Bristol's Festival of Ideas, which got me thinking about my surroundings  - that tree in front of my house, the birds - in a way I am ashamed I never had before.

You can purchase At Hawthorn Time (Bloomsbury, 2015) at all good bookshops, in hardback, and Clay, in paperback. Mel is very active on Twitter, follow her at M_Z_Harrison, and check out her website & blog!And go say hello to her at the Hay Festival this Monday, May 25.