Thursday, September 25, 2008
Picking up my books from Salt
J and I arrived in Cambridge and the next day we headed off in our rental car to Salt's new offices to pick up three boxes of The White Road and Other Stories to take back with us. We stayed for quite a while, chatting about short stories and books in general with Chris and Jen, discussing innovative ideas for promotion of which there will be more soon. They do such sterling work, enough to keep an army busy, mostly done for love rather than for enormous profits (which would not be turned down, however!), and I for one am extremely grateful, they made my dream come true. A medal for Service to the Short Story is on its way!
The Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival
Arriving in Cork last Wednesday, J and I dashed from our hotel to the opening Festival event, the launch of Stinging Fly's anthology, Let's Be Alone Together. Tantalising snippets were read by several of the authors, all new to me, and I met the driving force behind Stinging Fly, Declan Meade, a passionate short story advocate with a fabulously dry sense of humour.
One of the highlights of my trip was meeting some of the wonderful folk with whom I have been in touch on email and through blogs for quite a while. First was Nuala (aka Women Rule Writer), an Irish literary star of both poetry and short stories. It's a wondrous thing the way friendships can blossom through correspondence, and meeting her it was obvious why we hit it off so well! I then met both Clare Wigfall, this year's winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, and Alison MacLeod, winner of this year's Society of Authors' Olive Cook Award, two Short Review authors with whom I had emailed, Adam Marek, the "robot wasp" man, and Wena Poon, whose collections are in my "to review" pile, watch this space. Congratulations to Julia Van Middlesworth, winner of this year's Sean O'Failain short story competition with her astonishing story, Daddy Dead, which is still reverberating inside me, 5 days later.
And it was wonderful, as always, to see Vanessa, and spend more time (and swap books with) with fellow Salt author Carys Davies, and our lovely publisher, Jen from Salt, rightfully lauded for publishing what may be ten percent of the world's single author short story collections this year (not sure about those figures....) I hope I haven't missed anyone, apologies if I have.
What of the sessions? Well, most featured two writers reading a short story each, and this was excellent planning because it is hard to concentrate intensely on more than two at a time, and the short story is something that requires intense listening skills. I was introduced to many names that were new to me - Jon Boilard, William Wall, Vincent McDonnell, Ian Wild, Rachel Trezise, Simon Robson and others, who demonstrated the range and versatility of the short form.
And on the Friday it was my turn. I read as part of the SouthWord showcase along with two other writers - the larger-than-life Julien Campredon, who had traveled from France and read an English translation of part of his wacky story about punks and elves and heavily-armed museum staff, and Denise O'Keefe, who read her stunning Sean O'Faolain shortlisted story from last year. I had thought I was going to be nervous, but after two days of listening to others in Cork's Triskel Arts Centre, I had a sense that it was my turn and I wanted to show what I could do. Nuala had run a flash fiction workshop that morning, so I read a flash story from The White Road, and a longer story. And I loved every minute of it! J filmed it, so there might just be a YouTube video next week sometime...
I was the only person to read a flash story, and I got a lot of wonderful feedback about flash, people seem very excited about the form, as well they should be. After the reading I sold 5 copies of my book and did my first signing. (Thanks to my Dad and stepmother, Carole, for the photos - and for coming to hear me!)
One of the best aspects of the festival was the post-reading pub conversations, complete with sandwiches and free drinks for the authors, every night. Nattering about the short story, about books and about writing, every night; I was in heaven. Many congrats to Pat Cotter and the Munster Literature Centre for the smooth organisation and varied line-up, I highly recommend next year's festival, and hope that it doesn't clash with that other short story extravaganza, Small Wonder, which caused Clare and several others to have to jet off to England. The world has so few short story festivals, we should be allowed to attend both, no?
London: Ride the Word III and MIR
I flew to London on Tuesday night after two relaxing days with Dad and Carole, including a rousing game of croquet, and came straight back into the literary whirl. Lunch with Jeremy Osbourne of Sweet Talk, who produced the three stories I've had on Radio 4, chatting about books and stories, radio and television, with promises of attempts to get some flash fiction on the radio! Then a meet-up with Vanessa and another writer mate, Sarah Hilary, to go to Ride the Word III, a showcase of Salt poets and short story writers at Borders in Oxford Street: Vincent De Souza, Simon Barraclough, Charles Lambert, Isobel Dixon, and Jay Merill. A very entertaining evening. I have just started on Charles' brand new collection, The Scent of Cinnamon, and will be purchasing some of the others' books from Salt forthwith.
Today, I met another online buddy: Anne Joseph, editor, journalist and short story lover, who has chosen one of my stories for the upcoming anthology in aid of World Jewish Relief, which will be launched at Jewish Book Week in February 2009. We sat and talked for several hours about writing and stories, as well as indulging in a little Jewish geography!
And tonight, to crown it all: the launch of the Mechanics Institute Review from the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck, edited by, among others, my writer friend Pippa Griffin. In the red-tinted half-light of the atmospheric Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, we heard extracts from some of the short stories in the anthology, which features new writers alongside big names such as Toby Litt, Ali Smith and short story goddess Sarah Salway, who I finally met! Although it was a little difficult to talk over the background music, it was wonderful to meet Sarah and I hope we'll get the chance to meet again in quieter surroundings.
To sum up
As well as enjoying myself immensely in the kinds of literary surroundings I rarely find at home, these past 10 days have brought about a shift in me. Being in Ireland helped me make that transition from writer-about-to-have-book to writer-with-book, from freaked-out author not quite knowing what it means to have a book to much-calmer-author who is understanding that the world is slightly altered now, but that when it comes down to it, it's all about the writing.
I was inspired to write by every session I went to, and after 5 days of not writing, so desperate was I to get back to it that I headed off into Cork centre by myself with my laptop. After writing a new flash story, I felt much better. This was it. This is what it means. My book is wonderful, I am learning how to graciously accept compliments and what to write when asked to sign it, but mostly I am itching to get on with writing more, exploring new avenues, getting back to my characters. Of course I am going to promote my book as much as possible, and have many ideas for how to do that, but a writer who doesn't write isn't of much use at all. At home next week, I will be back at it, and while I will miss the literary whirlwind, the discussions on writing, the books and more glorious books, I will be where I am supposed to be.
Monday, September 22, 2008
I am delighted to be hosting the wonderful Sarah Salway today on this and The Short Review blog, with her inspiring thoughts about writing & Doing Nothing.
To drift = to trust
To get lost = to discover new things
To do nothing = to recharge
Let’s take your average writer. OK, let’s take me. I am an A* worrier, a textbook Virgo, and more than slightly driven. I love deadlines, daily writing practice, word counts, goals. I take on too many projects and like nothing better than ticking items off my to-do list.
And, from conversations I’ve had with other writers, I’m not alone. The myth of us all sitting alone in our rooms day after day communing only with the page is, I’m convinced, exactly that. A myth. Just hearing about most other writers’ timetables exhausts me but mine is just as bad. When I started writing fiction, I was also juggling bringing up two small children and a part time job. I remember being asked at a reading whether I had any writing rituals, and going completely blank because, at that time, having the iron will and self-discipline to get to the computer was celebration enough. Sharpening three pencils before I started writing, or going for a long walk would have tipped me over the edge, let alone picking fleas from my cat (Colette) and finding a lover who would strip naked so I could use his back as my writing desk (Voltaire).
But, surprise, surprise, I’ve discovered recently that I can’t keep up the pace forever. The well runs dry. And so I’ve discovered the joy of stopping. Not for ever, of course, but just two or three days of doing nothing is enough to sort me out. Not sitting at my desk doing nothing (I do a lot of that anyway). Or reading on the beach (lovely as that may be). Or even the residencies, or retreats, or writing courses, which all have a structure and are infinitely valuable, but are different. No, what’s seems to work for me is that I go somewhere I don’t know, where I’m not known and where I don’t need to make an effort so I can fall into a state of mild gloominess without anyone trying to cheer me up.
A city is best for this kind of anonymity. Drizzly Dublin was my first illicit do-nothing break, although it didn’t start as such. In fact, I had a busy timetable of networking arranged, but hours after I arrived, I developed a strange puffiness around the eyes which carried on puffing up until it took over my whole face. Really. I tried to ignore it, but when a woman in a café took one glance at me and moved quickly to another table, I cancelled all my plans and instead lurked in the corners of art galleries, the dusty shelves of second hand bookshops, the back row of a lecture. I avoided eye contact and barely spoke. I seemed to be using as little energy as possible, spending more than an hour scribbling notes in my journal about just one painting, rather than racing round the whole gallery. Then I walked slowly, in a funk of self-induced self-pity (is there any other kind?), round the park, watching happy couples, and formulated a story about the painting in my head. Back at my hotel room, I wrote this up in longhand.
By the next day, at one of those free talks all museums seem to offer, I had become so much part of the background that the speaker skipped over me when he went round the room asking everyone where they were from. But from under my invisible cloak, I watched a father laugh with his two teenage daughters throughout the whole lecture and spent lunchtime making notes abut them in my journal. I wandered round shops where I brought nothing, barely looked at anything because I was thinking about who those girls’ mother might be. And then walking, walking, walking the streets, I started a conversation with her in my head. Back in my hotel room, once again, I wrote it all up in longhand.
Back at home, it took much longer to click back into my everyday life than if I’d rushed around as I normally did. Weeks later, I was still thinking about my mood in Dublin and what was it that had inspired me so much. Because on the surface, I must have looked miserable, I actually felt pretty miserable much of the time. I definitely mooched rather than stepped out purposefully with an agenda and guidebook in hand, but something was happening underneath. I left Dublin after three days with three stories in my notebook which, for me, is pretty spectacular. It felt as if I’d stopped the world for a while.
In Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she quotes Walter Benjamin. ‘Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,’ he says. ‘But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.’ She goes on to say that, under Benjamin’s definition, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.
I think this is it. I surrendered to, rather than trying to organise, the experience. I gave myself up to a state of suspension I can’t normally achieve even when I put time aside for writing. This year, I’ve been on a two-week residency with nothing to do but write and that was an amazing experience. However, I still had people to speak to in the evenings. There was no way I got lost in the same way.
My trip to Dublin was three years ago, and in my mind I still flick back to my bank of images from those few day. It was something I remembered all over again this summer, where I found myself unexpectedly in Minneapolis with two and a half days to kill, and absolutely nothing to do.
I’d been taking part in an arts project in Iowa, a state I hadn’t expected to like but found beautiful. It made me want to see more of the mid-west, and as I couldn’t see myself coming back there any time soon, I decided to base myself in Minneapolis – my stop-over point – for my last few days in America, and organise some day trips to explore new areas. I would do this, and this, and this, and that. I looked over maps on the internet, searched out travel times and asked for recommendations.
But when I got to my anonymous hotel room, I wasn’t sure if this was the best use of my unexpected free time. Could I be brave enough to do nothing again?
‘Order room service and write, write, write,’ a friend suggested via email. But remembering Dublin, I set out to get lost in the city again. This time, luckily, my skin didn’t puff up alarmingly but I still became happily invisible.
And, as with Dublin, I felt my internal clock shift. I woke late, and went to bed late. What I would fit into an average half hour at home, having a cup of coffee say, took hours. I walked everywhere whereas at home I might cycle or take a bus to save time. Within a frighteningly short time, I got used to not talking, not least because I didn’t have anything to say. My mind hadn’t exactly shut down, but it had turned inside.
If I hadn’t have known I was going to be catching a plane back, then I might have got worried at how easily I adapted to silence and anonymity, but as it was, I was safe dropping into a temporary chrysalis.
The work I’d brought with me to edit and work on stayed in my suitcase. After a day I didn’t even take notes in my journal. I watched couples and groups sitting outside bars, having food, coffee, conversation almost as if they were another breed. I wandered aimlessly, got lost in back streets and found myself again almost by accident.
On the plane home, I sat next to a man from Minneapolis. ‘So what did you see?’ he asked enthusiastically. ‘Did you go to St Pauls? See the shopping mall? The Modern art gallery?’ I shook my head so many times, I started to wonder if I should lie just to please him. I’m still not sure why I didn’t just tell him the truth. ‘I did nothing. I mooched around like one of those teenagers you want to tell to snap out of it. And it was wonderful.’
OK, as a way of life, it’s not terrific. Even as an artist’s date, I’m not sure it would come up to scratch, and I definitely wasn’t good company - sullen, silent, mouse-like, lacking in all initiative and avoiding all the coolest bars to hang out in, but I know now that getting lost, doing nothing, allowing myself to get gloomy, is as much a part of my writing process as setting word counts and deadlines. As Vladimir Nabokov writes in Pale Fire: The lost glove can be happy too.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Sunday, September 14, 2008
There it is! In Brighton Waterstones, sandwiched gorgeously between short story goddesses Lorrie Moore's collected stories and Vanessa G's fabulous Words from a Glass Bubble. Wow. Another weepy moment.
We're off in a few hours, to England and then to Ireland for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival, where I will be doing my first reading, on Friday. Excited and nervous, most definitely. But to be talking short stories for 5 days? I can't wait! Then to London, to listen to five wonderful authors at the Salt publishing Ride the Word III evening at Borders in Oxford Street on Wed Sept 24th, and the Mechanics Institute Review launch at the Horse Hospital the next night. Watch this space for regular updates.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
...scientists here will embark on their biggest experiment ever, the hunt for a particle which gave the universe its form.Its scientific name is the Higgs Boson, but because it is so fundamental in shaping the universe, others have called it the God particle.It is a particle that is supposed to endow other fundamental particles with mass. Without it there would be no gravity, no universe as we know it - no "let there be light" moment.No-one has seen it, but physicists have invoked it because it is the simplest explanation for how the universe evolved.If you can get BBC Radio 4, they are having Big Bang Day programming today, with special features such as:
Click here for the rest of the BBC News article.
What sounds most interesting to me is the special Women's Hour program on Switching Women on to Science. I'll be listening to that on the 'Net later.
Is particle physics the new rock n’ roll? The extraordinary questions that particle physics hopes to answer has attracted some very high profile fans. Also Alexandra Feachem, the series producer, gives a unique insight into the making of the series.
Happy big bang day!
Monday, September 08, 2008
Now, I promise to plug my writing mate Oonah's new venture, Every Day Poets. An offshoot, sister site from the wonderful Every Day Fiction, which brings you a flash story every day, EDP is planning to do the same with poetry. Here is what they say:
For The Reader
Poetry is all around us. It is in the rhythms of our daily lives, the drab and the colourful–moments, hues, smells, the music of a child’s laughter, the screech of brakes. But very often we don’t have time to stop and experience the moment. That’s what we hope to allow you to do through the work presented here–stop and look at the world everyday from a different angle; the small detail and the grand design. We hope to enrich your day. Whether you like Haiku, Villanelle, iambic pentameter or alexandrines, prose poems, concrete or Limericks, we hope you’ll find some rhyme and reason here and some things to treasure.
For The Contributor
Every Day Poets is offering you several unique incentives to publish your poem here. Since we publish a short bio and link back to your website or blog, you can consider your poem as being a kind of advertisement for your collection or other writing. This is an opportunity to get your writing seen and get your name out there. We will also allow a link to your work on Amazon to help you drive your own sales.
We recognize that your efforts to promote your work will benefit our magazine so we hope to continue the custom of interviewing the author of the poem that gets the most (unique) page views every month and posting that on the site. That gives you a great opportunity to talk about what you are trying to achieve through your poetry and, as all you poets out there know, that is rare indeed!
For now, our cash payment is small because our print schedule is so aggresive, but we hope our magazine will grow along the same lines as Every Day Fiction so that as we prosper, you will share in our reputation. We look forward to reading your work.
Submission is through the online form, and they are looking for "short poems, of up to 60 lines/500 words or fewer. There’s no such thing as too short." Amen to that.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
So wonderful. I'm holding my book. I'm a bit wobbly. I am going to carry it around everywhere with me. The cover is stunning. It looked good on screen, but it looks so much better in the flesh, so to speak. Wow. Now it's real. Now it's real.
Photo with author and offspring coming later!
I am also a bit sad because I am not having a book launch party yet. I can't have one until I have several boxes of books so I can sell them. And I don't know exactly when that will be. At the earliest, in three weeks. But I want to party now. I want to see my book.
On the flipside, it has been - and continues to be - wonderful to receive the messages from those lovely souls who have bought the book and received it. Thank you, Douglas, for your blog comment yesterday, glad you are enjoying it, and I am absolutely delighted that it has sent you to buy a copy of New Scientist! If only I was on commission... I am so grateful to all of you who mentioned my book on your blogs (Vanessa, Nik, Sarah, Sarah, Sara, ... sorry if I missed someone). I was bowled over yesterday to read a comment by someone I didn't know on a blog post about the White Road in which he said: "'ll add this one to my wishlist as I like the sound of it (and I think I read about it somewhere else this week too!)." Read about it somewhere else? Wow. Wow....
Thursday, September 04, 2008
First, congratulations to Elizabeth Baines for winning third prize in the Raymond Carver short story contest. Her story, Used to Be, can be read online here. It is stunning, it blew me away, I was literally on the edge of my seat, staring into my screen. I hate reading from the screen, but this story gripped me so absolutely.
Second, congrats to my writing mate Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau for being shortlisted for the Sean O' Faolain short story competition. There were over 700 entries, and Michelle made the final ten, a wonderful achievement.
Congratulations also to Joel for making the shortlist of the Mere Literary Festival, Frances for being one of the finalists in the We Are Many competition, Sarah Hilary for winning a place in the Fish July micro-fiction showcase. And to Douglas, one of the finalists of the Kelpie's Prize 2008, whose novel will be published by Floris Books.
This is what makes being a writer worthwhile - each of these wins, these hits, is accompanied by many, many rejections, and, as I have said before, that's the way it has to be. The sting of the rejection just makes the sweetness of an acceptance even deeper. Well done all!
Flash fiction is a dominant thread running through this month's books, with an award-winning chapbook (In the Land of the Free by Geoffrey Forsyth), a collection of prose poems (Annie Clarkson's Winter Hands), and fabulous examples of food-related fiction (Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder) . Shakespeare's heroines provide inspiration (Silent Girl by Tricia Dower), there are close encounters (Close Encounters by Jen Michalski) on cool blue trains (Peter Hobbs' I could Ride All Day on My Cool Blue Train), our reviewer dreams of large motorbikes (Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy), a prize anthology doesn't disappoint (Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008), and tales of science versus supersition (Galileo's Children edited by Gardner Dozois) and warnings about what we're doing to our planet make for interesting reading (EarthFuture by Guy Dauncey).
Seven author interviews - from Clare Wigfall, Benjamin Percy and Jen Michalski to Peter Hobbs, Annie Clarkson, Geoffrey Forsyth and Tricia Dower - demonstrate again how writing fiction is a personal and a collective experience.
Head on over....Happy reading!
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
I started writing fiction at the age of 6 with my first attempt, a novel about triplets, which luckily never saw the light of day! I always loved words, I devoured books even before I knew which way up to hold them. But I also loved maths and science, and growing up in England in the 1970s, my school wouldn't allow me to study arts and sciences after the age of 16, so I went towards science and studied Maths and Physics. At uni, I realised I would never, ever become a scientist, I was dreadful at experiments, so I studied for a diploma in journalism, moved to Israel and worked as a science journalist. While this did combined my two loves, there was always a niggling at the back of my mind about writing fiction. I went to some writing workshops in the US and the UK, including a wonderful Arvon Foundation course on Writing and Science, tailor-made, it seemed at the time, for me!For the rest of the interview, click here. (I think it is viewable by non-WW members..I hope so!)
And even more... here's another interview with me, at Nik's marvellous blog. Thanks so much, Nik.
To give you a taster:
I would like to tell you what I will not be talking about. I won’t be:The rest of the post here.
1. Talking about the short story collection as the victim of the narrow-minded publishing industry, how sad it all is, if only they could all wise up etc…etc..
2. Trying to persuade the readers of this blog to abandon all novels and move wholeheartedly and exclusively to short story collections because they are far superior
3. Saying things like, “Well, in this day and age, with the diminishing attention spans and tiny screens on mobile devices, shouldn’t short stories just be a perfect fit?”
None of the above, I feel, does anything to inspire readers. Who wants to read the “poor short story” that no-one thinks is really as good as a novel? Do short story writers want to be read out of pity? I don’t think so.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
The night before, James helped me come up with a ritual to perform in the morning. It felt important to me to do something different, especially since I couldn't hold the book. He suggested I write something, give thanks, and then I came up with the idea, inspired by the way people stuff messages in the Western Wall (down the road) to hang the written thanks note in one of our trees. I wrote it the night before, and yesterday morning, with my cup of tea, I went into the garden, read it quietly to myself, and hung it up. I think that must have set the tone for the whole day, I literally glowed. It was wonderful. (The large G&T last night definitely helped!)
But - and this is following on from last week's discussion on writers, even the big name ones, constantly needing validation - if you think that the fact that my book is enough validation for a month or even a week, think again! Turns out today I am back to my old self, wondering if lit mag X will want to publish my story, why competition Y hasn't announced its results yet.
However, this is not, I believe, I bad thing. If the book was enough, well then I would probably stop. I probably wouldn't write much, wouldn't send stories out. And that wouldn't really be being a writer. This way, with the old insecurities about whether anyone will like any of my recent stories rearing up (though most definitely not as strongly), I am spurred on to do the work. And it is work, it's all work. Luckily work that I love.
I was waiting for this book for 15 months because I felt I really needed to get it out so that all the 27 stories in it could be filed away under "Done". Ok, they are the past, now let's get on with the next thing, the next project. I can't wait to go on my writing retreat at La Muse in November and fill me head with new stories!
Monday, September 01, 2008
It is publishing by the fabulous Salt Publishing. The website I built for the book is now live: TheWhiteRoadandOtherStories.com, with information on how to buy (bless you for wanting to), and more about science-inspired stories and flash fiction, and Eco-Libris, who are planting a tree for every copy of the book printed.
Wow. Hmm. Wow. Yup. Ok. There it is. Thank you. All of you. Wow.