Sunday, September 27, 2009
I came on Thursday night and stayed til Sunday lunchtime with Vanessa, in the company of several other writer friends, which meant late night chats about that thing that we do! I went to six events, and to sum it up I would say that while the concept of Small Wonder is fabulous and the organisers are to be applauded, it is, as most of these festivals must be, driven by commercial considerations, or, to use that lovely British phrase, "bums on seats". In other words: ticket sales and then book sales. Of course this is important since, sadly, there are no billionaire short-story-loving angels dispensing money to the few short story festivals that exist. But the upshot is that almost every writer is a "name", because otherwise many of the seats would be unfilled. So, as someone who loves to read experimental, non-traditional short stories from new voices, often published by small presses, much of the writing here didn't excite me.
Thinking about it, one of the reasons may be that there is only one space - albeit a very large converted barn - in which to hold the events, and so there is only ever one session at a time. If there was a second, smaller space, perhaps the big names could draw the crowds to subside the newer, riskier talents who might be talking only to a few keen and more adventurous readers and listeners. It would be a great shame to change the venue, Charleston is stunning and there is the scent of artistic endeavour in the air. But I read so many short story collections that just knock me sideways and I would love for these writers to reach the type of audiences that come to Small Wonder. Maybe I'm dreaming... but a girl can dream!
More specifically, though, the festival started badly for me but ended on a high. First, the low point: the event that kicked off my Small Wonder experience was one of those a short story lover hopes never to have to sit through, especially at a festival which celebrates the form. It was an "oh, the poor short story, why doesn't anyone want to read it?" type event, at which the question was even raised as to what the short story can do that, say, the novel can't. Oh, oh, oh: why even ask the question? Once you've read one great story, you know the answer. My blood pressure was rising dangerously.... and take this kind of thing very personally, perhaps too personally, but it just makes me MAD.
Thankfully, the excellent, sharply Scottish and very real writer Janice Galloway, whom I had heard so much about from Sara, cut through all of this nonsense to tell it like it is, as well as reading from her excellent stories. Thank you, Janice, for saving my health! Of course, I had to say something so, in the guise of a question - the final question! - I said how I didn't want to talk about the "problem with short stories" because I don't think there is a problem. The problem, I said, is that the pioneers taking the "risk" of publishing short story collections are the small presses, who do it for love and are often on the verge of financial ruin because of it. My question? "What did the panel think about this?"!! Apparently, although I was shaking from my public speaking and didn't notice, Janice Galloway applauded my question. And then she made the excellent point that these small presses make beautiful books and the reader just must go and search out these books. It's up to the reader. Yes, it is.
I approached her afterwards, we had a lovely chat, and she agreed to be interviewed for The Short Review to accompany a review of her new Collected Stories, which I promptly asked for from her publisher. So all wasn't completely dismal! (It was also great to meet Tom Lee, one of the others on the panel, a lovely writer whose first collection, Greenfly, we will be reviewing shortly!)
And the ending? Well, a session chaired by Alison MacLeod - a great writer and friend whose Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction is a must-have collection - in which A. L Kennedy, one of my favourite writers, and Helen Dunmore, read from the short stories they were commissioned to write for the new Amnesty International anthology, Freedom, inspired by the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Two completely different stories, both deeply moving and beautifully written, and three highly intelligent and thoughtful writers discussing the book and the role of short stories. Fabulous, inspiring, unsettling. Alison introduced me to the woman from Amnesty afterwards, and I already have a review copy of the book, so watch this space and the Short Review for more on the book, including a giveaway and a blog post about how it all came about.
All in all, a great four days, for me personally too. I had flown from Israel to attend Small Wonder a few years ago on my own, and had found it quite a lonely experience, no-one to chat to, I was on the outside looking in. This time, within an hour of arriving, some lovely person - one of the founders of a shortly-to-be-launched short story venture, Spoken Ink, which will offer audio downloads of stories read by professional actors - wanted to meet me, has my book and "will be in touch"! I was introduced to the festival organiser, and was in the glorious company of Vanessa, Jo, Claudia, Selma, Vicky (congratulations on being an Asham finalist), Jenny, Marian, Geraldine, Adam, Alison... A very different view of events. It made me more confident, approaching people to give out Short Review postcards, sitting in the audience without that swirling in the pit of my stomach of longing to be "the ones with their names on the books". It was a great opportunity for me to see different stops on my personal journey, where I have traveled from and where I am.
Perhaps an opportune moment in this blog post to mention some small wonders of my own. Actually, pretty huge wonders. In the past two weeks I have been asked to judge not one but two short story competitions: I will be one of the judges of the next Bristol Short Story Prize, which is such a thrill and a great vote of confidence from my new home city. Joe Melia, the competition organiser, is a dynamic short story lover with so many ideas and I am delighted to be part of his plan for world short story domination! This year's competition will be launched in a few weeks, I will keep you updated.
The second offer is a double wonder: I am to be the new editor of Southword, the literary magazine of the Munster Literature Centre in Ireland which organises the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize and the annual festival which I read at last year. I will be taking over from Philip Ó Ceallaigh in December, and this one-year-post comes along with the honour of being the single judge of next year's Sean O'Foalain short story competition. Yes, I was bowled over to be asked. Bowled over.
I feel incredibly honoured and look forward to both of these responsibilities with great delight. Both competitions are judged strictly anonymously, so you can enter without any worries on that score - which is reassuring to me too. I will be reading the longlist of the Bristol Prize and every single entry of the Sean O'Faolain competition, and will report here on how it is to be on the other side of the process for a change.
A further surprise and delight: the three stories I have had broadcast on BBC Radio 4 were produced by Sweet Talk, a wonderful independent production company with whom I have become great friends. I had suggested that flash fiction could work in the Afternoon Reading slot (now three days a week, down from five), and Jeremy at Sweet Talk had mentioned this to the folks at Radio 4. Or rather: he cajoled, persuaded and assured them it could work. And now... they've said yes to a flash fiction week of stories! And not only this but, gulp, a week of my flash fiction! Yes, I know, I was on the floor too. Jeremy told me yesterday that it's now official and will be broadcast in April next year, so now we have to pick around 12 flash stories. I am unbelievably excited and I hope this open the doors to much more flash fiction on Radio 4, one of the best - and best-paying - British venues for short stories.
All of this feels to me like the clearest signal that our move here is the right one for me at this stage in my career. I get to travel around the country meeting people who want to talk about short stories (four or five more events in the next few weeks alone), and I am privileged enough to be asked for my opinion on the precious stories that are sent in to competitions, which I know only to well is really a great act of faith on the part of a writer. Will I be writing at all? I hope so! I have applied for a grant for writers working on their second book, so that would most definitely help. And I will be attempting to fathom my way through the Arts Council application forms, we will see how that goes. (A new review of the White Road and Other Stories on Bookmunch wonderfully entitled "Eschewing the rote delineation of new facts and stats in favour of zesty, obtuse life" is a great boost!)
And to put back some of this wonderful karma, I took part in Sue Guiney's Pay it Forward and so, in return for her sending me her excellent poetry play Dreams of May and a beautiful pendant, I am to "pay it forward" by offering to send a gift to the first three people who comment here saying that they agree to pay it forward too. How about it?
And last but not least, thank you to Kelly for the Kreative blogger award. After writing this blog post it might be more accurate to call it the lengthy-waffling-blog award, but I am honoured! I promise I will do all the things I am supposed to do in the next blog post.
I'm going offline now til tomorrow night, it's Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a day of fasting and contemplation, so for those of you observing it, may it pass smoothly.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Where are you?
In my office, which is an a house, which is in a village, which is about a half hour’s drive from Manchester and a twenty minute drive from the Peak District. In the UK.
How long have you been there?
I say this with a bit of regret and considerable frustration: pretty much all of my life.
I didn’t go to university, I chose to work instead, so I missed out on that experience which is something now, that I kind of regret. That said, I don’t think I’d have ended up being a writer if I had gone, so really I should be grateful to fate for that.
The other reason for regret and frustration is that I shouldn’t really be here, but that’s another story.
Were you there when you wrote I met a Roman Last Night, What Did You Do? If not, where were you?
Yes. I wrote it here, where I’m sitting. At this desk, from this very chair.
How do you think your location affected that book?
I’m not sure that it did. Not in any conscious or, more accurately, intentional way. Though I think there’s a possibility that being here for so long has made me interested in other things and places and people, made me actively Find Stuff Out, looking outward – and also made me look inside for inspiration and stories.
How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?
Again, I’m not sure that it does in any conscious way – speaking for myself. While at the same time I’ll contradict myself and say: an awful lot. I think, in answering this, I’m also trying to find out what I think.
I like to think that I write about what interests me, about characters I make up who interest me. Now that could be a young lad who ends up meeting various and exciting historical peoples who feature on the National Curriculum, as easily as it could be about a nosey librarian who might be getting the wrong end of a stick about the intentions of one of her borrowers. I like to think that the people I write about are as universal as they can be and not restricted by place, as much as that’s possible; I think that a hugely important factor in good story telling is having characters that people can recognise – where they’re from or where they are, in my opinion, is something that comes second to that – although, clearly where they are will, to some degree, make them who they are and/or make them act the way they do. Complicated, huh?
Now for the contradictory part. All that said, I think it’s impossible to have been somewhere with it not having affected you in some way, good or bad. As writers, we soak things up, quite naturally – and it’s what has been absorbed that provides us with the stuff that our characters and settings come from. And books. Reading books does that too.
I think it comes down to this: a fiction writer’s biggest tool is his/her imagination. It’s the mind. The ability to make stuff up. The ability to make characters believable. The ability to show us their world (not the writer’s). How those characters are formed, where the ideas for them come from, aren’t that important to a reader because they, normally, won’t have anything to do with the story. So where a writer’s been and who they’ve met and the experiences they’ve had will all have fuelled his or her subconscious understanding or observation of people and places and the interactions between them, it’s what goes on top, what adds colour and character to their work that’s the difference, and that’s something that has to come from the imagination.
For me - and again I can only speak for myself here and I appreciate lots of people will disagree (I’m also speaking as someone whose work doesn’t often have a particularly strong lean towards realism) – a story is about a character or characters. It’s the story of what a character does, how she or he reacts to something, what they do to cope with something, how they feel about something - whatever that something may be. So a story is about people. And people are everywhere. And those somethings they have to deal with are pretty similar from place to place. If we’re talking about a character dealing with, say, ‘loss’ for instance: what places in the world don’t have people dealing with, or having dealt with, loss? The kind of loss may be shaped by their location, but that fundamental emotion is something that can be understood, recognised and empathised with, wherever you’re from. I also think that as emotions are something that are easily translated it’s often not essential to identify where a story’s set.
What I find I’m discovering, as I contradict myself and circle the point for an answer, is that a lot of this is down to a writer’s perception of themselves. It’s about ego. At the moment, for a hundred different reasons, I’m frustrated with where I am so I think I’m trying to find as many ways as I can to say that I don’t take inspiration from this place, when clearly I do, whether I want to or not. (I’m also discovering how much contradiction is part of my life.)
And how does location affect how a writer writes?
Tough one. I’d guess that writers have a compulsion to write. So if we’re talking about routine: they’ll fit it in somehow regardless of where they are. I’d also guess that where they are could either inspire them to write about their location or go completely the opposite way and cause them to write about somewhere else as a means of escape. Or a mixture of the two. You’re probably best asking them!
Complex creatures, writers. And they don’t have as much control over what they write as they may like to think, it would seem.
So that’s what I think about that, I’d be curious to hear what others’ opinions are.
Thanks so much, Nik, for expressing all the contradictions involved in thinking about how where we are affects what we do as writers. Anyone else?
Monday, September 14, 2009
There is one more animation on the Electric Literature YouTube page as well as a trailer for Jim Shepherd's Your Fate Hurtles Down at You. I love the idea of animating short stories... see what you think.
Another very welcome newcomer is Madras press, based in the US. This is what they are all about - and they are publishing the wondrous Aimee Bender as one of their first authors, which is always a great thing!
"Madras Press publishes individually bound short stories and novellas and distributes the proceeds to a growing list of charitable organizations chosen by our authors.
The format of our books provides readers with the opportunity to experience a story on its own, with no advertisements or unrelated articles surrounding it; it also provides a home for stories that are often arbitrarily ignored by commercial publishing outfits, whether because they’re too long for magazines but not trade-book length, or because they don’t resemble certain other stories. These are clumsy, ill-fitting stories made perfect when read in the simplest possible way.
Published in regular series of four, our books also serve as fundraising efforts for a number of charitable causes and organizations. Each of our authors has selected a beneficiary to which all net proceeds generated from the sales of his or her book will be donated; these include organizations dedicated to environmental protection, community development, human services, and much more.
On October 1, our online bookstore will open, at which time you'll be able to order from our first series of titles:The Third Elevator, by Aimee Bender
Proceeds to benefit InsideOUT Writers
Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee
Proceeds to benefit Riverkeeper
Sweet Tomb, by Trinie Dalton
Proceeds to benefit the Theodore Payne Foundation
A Mere Pittance, by Sumanth Prabhaker
Proceeds to benefit Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled
Each book will cost about as much as a greeting card, and will come with your name (or a name of your choice) transcribed in an ex-libris panel on the inside front cover."
A lovely idea, not only boosting the short story, but raising money for worthy causes at the same time. Founding editor Sumanth Prabhaker told me they will be accepting submissions from oct 1st and "We operate on a purely volunteer basis, so that the only cost subtracted from the sticker price of online purchases is for manufacturing. Acquisitions, editing, design, production, and marketing are all done at no cost. Taking inspiration from the Concord Free Press, we are foregoing commercial distribution and working directly with bookstores and consumers." Good luck to them!
Thirdly, going head to head with the BBC National Short Story Award, but with a bigger cheque, the brand new Sunday Times Short Story Prize will award £25,000 (no, you haven't read that wrong) "for a single short story in Britain and Ireland. " Says the announcement:
"The prize, backed by EFG Private Bank, is the latest sign that the genre is once again thriving after many years of falling popularity. The contest is open to authors who have already had work published in Britain and Ireland, and is intended to attract well-established writers as well as relative unknowns."
Now, this is welcome news indeed, as is anything that intends to get more people reading short stories (falling popularity? You're just looking in the wrong places).
However, as with the BBC award, this is not judged anonymously, which bothers me. It always bothers me. Is it about the writing or about the name above the writing? An interesting discussion on Facebook ensued, with Nicola making the excellent point that since this is open to published stories, it can't be anonymous since some of the (six) judges may have read some of the stories submitted and know who they were written by. Very good point. So: just accept unpublished stories. That solves that one.
What do you think? We all know that it is hard enough to read something without simultaneously looking up the author's bio, let alone reading something by a "big name". You just can't really read it in a vacuum. But you can at least attempt that. If it is going to be "award for best previously-published story" then that is something else.
I'm not complaining, not really. Just thinking out loud. £25,000 will mean an enormous amount to any writer unless they are Dan Brown, I highly doubt any writer of literary fiction (if this is what the prize is aiming at) makes that from their books. Yes, the best short story should win. But I say that anything that might stand in the way of that goal should, if at all possible, be removed.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
- Andrew Philip
- Richard Osgood
For those of you that didn't win, a very special birthday offer: I am happy to send you a signed copy from my personal stash, for £6/$10, which includes p&p. You won't find it cheaper anywhere! If you'd like one, please email me at email@example.com . I will do my best to write an original and witty dedication to each person!
PS Funnily enough, I just got an email saying I'd won a book, The Einstein Girl, in a prize draw over at How Publishing Really Works. What goes around...
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Young though she may be (the same age as me, so very very young!), Nuala, who lives in Galway, has already published 4 books: two short story collections and two collections of poetry, with a third forthcoming from Templar Poetry in November. Shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature, the Irish Times included her in their "People to watch this year" feature in January. Watch her? You'd better concentrate, she is so prolific and active, you are liable to miss something if you don't! (Did I mention that she gave birth to her third child, Juno, this year too?)
Before we start chatting, I thought I would give you a taste of Nuala's latest collection, in which all the stories have some flavour of nudity, but it is never what you expect. I tried so hard not to read it in one sitting, to savour it over time. But I couldn't put it down. It is clear to see that the writer is also a poet who loves language and rhythm.
Here is an excerpt from Unmothered:
The outflow on the bath is like a keyhole; you stopper it with your toe and let the water lap in your ears, to block out the house. If you were key-shaped, you wouldslither into that hole and slip down the pipes, away from here. Away from the women who breed women; the women who have cried lavishly for three days, though your daughter was an embarrassment to them and you all knowit. When you called your baby Angelica, your sister said it was a waste of a good name.
There is no name for you now.
Tania: This is your third book of short stories. How do you feel this book is different, in terms of the writing style, tone, voices, subject matter, themes - any of those or other things?
Nuala: I think the style is pretty much still me; style is such an innate thing – an extension of personality – so I don’t think that’s changed in my work. I hope maybe it’s more comfortable now though, more honed. I feel like I’ve learnt so much over the years about what story is and hopefully some of that is apparent in my work. I’m a fan of stylistic, poetic writing and I hope I’ve achieved a better version of that in this book than in the others.
There are less children’s voices in Nude, as there are in To the World of Men, Welcome, my second collection; the themes are more adult in both. They deal a lot with broken relationships and sex. Nude has a lot of visual art in it from different POV’s: the artist, the model, the painting. If I was any good, I’d like to have been an artist.
The Wind Across the Grass, my first collection, mined a different seam – there were children’s lives in it. I do enjoy writing from a child’s point of view – I remember my own childhood vividly – but it can be a relief to write as an adult sometimes. I prefer being a grown-up!
T: For me, publishing my short story collection drew a line under all the 27 stories that were in it: it meant that they were done, dealt with, I didn't have to worry about them anymore and could move on. What does it mean to you as a writer to publish a book, whether it be poetry or short stories, both of which you write? What does having a book do for you personally?
N: Oh yes, I agree with that – the stories in Nude are now finished and I have a fresh canvas. It’s a relief in one way to get the book out there and nerve-wracking in another. I don’t show my fiction to anyone before it’s published (not even my Peer Group) so the first reading it gets is in magazines or a collection. I never know what people will make of the stories. I guess I still never do afterwards – it’s hard to discuss stories with the writer of them – but friends and other readers etc are generally quite positive. To my face at least!
I love having a new book – it’s the reward after years of writing.
T: Did you write with the "nude" theme in mind or did you just wake up one day and realise that you had a set of stories where nudity was, if not a theme, then something that is glimpsed in each story?
N: It was the latter, really. I’m fairly obsessed with visual art and I’ve collected postcards of the nude in art for years – people send them to me from their hols and I buy them in galleries. I made a notice-board of nudes for my wall and began to write poems and stories around some of them. It wasn’t deliberate but I think it works well as a linking motif. in the book. Not all of the stories feature art so it’s not some sort of false imposition of a theme. Some of the nudes are lovers and their unclothed bodies are incidental; some – like the boy modelling as the young Jesus in Jackson and Jerusalem – are more central.
T: You say, "If I was any good, I’d like to have been an artist." I say: you are an artist, a word artist. What draws you to the visual image that you don't think you can get from words, either writing or reading them?
N: "Word artist" – that’s cool! I’m pretty awed by people who can paint or sculpt well. I love the way they can have an idea and translate that into the visual; I’d like to have that gift. I can get a lot of visual stuff from words but a beautiful painting is a different thing. Plus it doesn’t feel like stealing to write about a painting, whereas it can to write about/from someone’s words.
T: Also, I am intrigued that you don't show your fiction to anyone until it's published. Why is this? Were you burned by bad or useless critique? Or is it just a part of your process? Does this mean that publication is the tool you use to gauge if your story is "done"?
N: I just don’t feel the need to show it; I am fairly confident in my abilities in fiction and don’t really want input from others. Though I do attend the odd workshop or master-class and they can be fun.
I have a note on my notice-board: "The story you’re writing is a secret." I think I picked that up from a Jack Heffron book. I’d consider it good advice – if you constantly let other people into your story before it’s finished it could get messed around and muddled. I’d hate that. I have enough trouble trying to figure out what’s going on myself without other writers fiddling with my story.
Poetry is different – I like to get critique and feedback on that and I find it helpful. It’s easier to critique poems, probably because they are short and ‘visible’. My first writing group was a poetry one, so I guess it just became my modus operandi to keep my stories to myself.
I usually know myself when a story is done; it’s when I’m happy enough to send it out.
T: Thank you so much, Nuala, it was an honour and a privilege to have you stop by on your way around the (virtual) world. Best of luck with the book.
N: Thanks a million, Tania, for having me at your lovely blog. Next week, on my virtual tour, I'll be stopping off at writer Colm Keegan's place, Uiscebots Blog. Do stop by to eavesdrop on a little chat between two Dubliners.
For more on the virtual book tour, visit Nude Not Naked. To buy Nude, click on the link. You won't regret it, it is a moving, entertaining and vital addition to every bookshelf. A writer to watch, but more importantly, to read.
Reminder: today is the last day to win one of three signed copies of my book in my First Birthday Giveaway! Leave a comment on the First Birthday Giveaway blog post to win!
Friday, September 04, 2009
In this month's issue, we bring you false relations, damaged goods, repetition patterns, quick repair, stories like donut holes, stories named for rivers, things that are cold to the touch, people who always want something, the collected stories of the Armitage family, and our first review of an ebook which leaves the reader, Radiohead-style, to decide what they'd like to pay. And, as ever, author interviews with almost everyone we review.
Controversially, perhaps, we've added the Literary Fiction category to the Find Something to Read By Category page. Difficult one, this. Might cause trouble. Who is to say what is Lit Fic and what isn't? Hmm. What do you think??
Also: Surprise yourself! Check out our non-complete list of short story collections published in 2008 and so far this year (almost). More than you thought, eh?
Pop in and have a read. Also: 4 more days to shout "pick me!" for your chance to win a signed copy of the White Road and Other Stories. Read about it here.
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
My great writer/blogger colleague and friend Nik Perring. has interviewed me about that first year over at his blog. A few tantalising snippets, and then down to the Free Book stuff...
To find out the biggest surprises of the last 12 months, and more, pop in to Nik's blog. And thanks to Eco-libris, I have planted a tree for every copy printed, which is more than I expected (mother buying 100+ 10 friends!) although not quite a forest yet.
Because I am published by a small press, Salt, even though they are amazing and they made me this beautiful book, most of the marketing and promotion was and is down to me. And I have no clue about selling a book! Well, perhaps now I have a bit more of a clue. So, basically, I made it up as I went along. I built a website for the book, I set up a Facebook Page, I organised a hectic 11-stop Virtual Book Tour where I was interviewed on 11 blogs over 11 weeks about everything from my love for science to writing and religion.... I cajoled as many people as possible into writing reviews....I obsessively checked my Amazon rankings, searching for some indication of whether what I was doing was working. And whirring through my mind, all the time, was: “How can I sell the book? How can I sell the book?”
Ok, in celebration, I am giving away THREE signed copies of
Happy birthday also too to Nuala Ní Chonchúir's wondrous short story collection, Nude, which is published today by Salt! Nuala's Nude Not Naked Virtual Book Tour kicks off today, and I will be hosting her here next week, Sept 8th, talking about writing, art, and perhaps a little about nudity!
So, anyone want a free book??