Thursday, February 25, 2010

The cats are home!

Yesterday, after a long six months, for us and I'm sure for them too, we finally got to spring the cats from prison! A few pictures:

Zac is in cat carrier 

Cleo wondering what's about to happen
Outside the Prison Gates!!

Cleo's first taste of freedom - heading for the kitchen

James frees Zac.

Zac re-establishes his old routine

Zac the Gorgeous (sadly with a cataract in his left eye)

Cleo the Much Fluffier claiming the Guest Room.

They seem fairly confused and stressed out, which isn't surprising, and not that happy to see each other again - which isn't surprising either! We will keep them in for 2 weeks, or attempt to anyway, and then they'll want to wander the neighbourhood. We have had foxes in our garden so I hope there won't be any unpleasant altercations there.

But the main thing is, they're HOME! No more excuses for not writing....:)

PS I was feeling pretty ill still yesterday but really had to be there to see them home... today I am feeling much better. Feline healing? I think so!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Writing and Place: Jenn Ashworth in Preston

I am delighted to welcome Jenn Ashworth to my blog! Jenn is a full-time writer and freelance literature development worker who blogs at Every Day I Lie a Little. She is the author of the novel A Kind of Intimacy, wonderfully described by Jenny Diski as "an intense and intriguing novel that never quite lets the reader get comfortable. It understands about the fuzzy boundary between the normal and the strange, and weaves them together in a gripping, ever-darkening narrative". Now Jenn gives us a little insight about where, perhaps, the understanding of those fuzzy boundaries comes from... by introducing us to Lancashire. Take it away, Jenn!

TH: Where are you?

JA: Preston, Lancashire. I normally have to explain to people where that is in relation to other places (between Manchester and the Lake District, a bit across from Blackpool, a stone's throw from Pendle, a bit underneath Lancaster) but it wouldn't be completely unfair to say that I'm on a mission to bring Lancashire (or, to be fair, my fictional version of it) to the literary world, and the utter un-glamour of that seems to suit me, or at least it amuses me very much.

More specifically, I am writing, as I always do, hunched at a rickety MFI desk that is seven years old and has moved with me between ten or so houses. I can see the students in the terraced house over the road if I peek through my coffee-stained blind. Lots of my other writing takes place in bed, or in the car. Not picky, as long as there's silence.

TH: How long have you been there?

JA: I was born here, and moved away to uni when I was eighteen. I remember swearing to myself that I'd fake my own death rather than move back here. I lived in Cambridge, and then in Oxford, but four years after moving away I got knocked up and came back home. I've been here ever since - just over five years, and have no plans to move. I think about the countryside somewhere sometimes and about how nice a house with grass near it would be, but by the time I can afford a house somewhere nicer than here I'll be too old to appreciate it. I like living so close to the river, and I like hearing the trains go through the station at night. I like the ugliness of this place.

There's something I've not put my finger on, something almost ignominious about coming from Preston. It's like being called Gary or Nigel, or the word 'trousers'.

TH: What do you write?

I wrote a novel set in Fleetwood, which is a miserable little sea-side town near Preston. It used to have a big old pier, but it burned down and no-one wanted to replace it. That came out in Spring last year with Arcadia, and is called A Kind of Intimacy. It's about, among other things, neighbours, awkwardness and the terrible consequences of not being loved.

I also write a blog about my reading, writing, teaching and whatever is getting on my nerves at the moment (TV License Company, BT, wheely bins, my curtains, the curtain poles and other domestic hindrances yet to be discovered).

I write short stories - some of them have been published on-line (you can read them via the links in the sidebar of my blog), and the rest of them I'm gradually polishing and working up into a collection. I'm on the brink of completing my second novel - Cold Light. That's set partly in Preston and partly in Morecambe - another miserable little sea-side town near here.

There's something about sea-side towns. I like the arcades, and the polystyrene cups you get your tea in, and the fact that you can still buy cups of tea for 10p in some of the Blackpool arcades. There's a woman who comes around with a trolley and a real zinc mop bucket top to tip out the dregs in. I think they reuse the cups. The cloth she's got on the trolley is the same colour as tea-bags, and I think they probably wring it out when they've run out of tea. I love it.

My writing is dark, I suppose. Not crime novels, but novels with crimes in them. People behaving badly, and failing to explain themselves. I'm interested in the processes we go through when we're trying really hard to remember things, to explain things, to be truthful. I like writing about extraordinary people doing ordinary things. The domestic. I find domestic settings and plots sinister and comic at the same time. If you think about things like bread-bins and apple peelers and fridge magnets for too long, you're either going to crack up laughing or commit a murder. Perhaps I'm being too flippant, but I do know that the ideas for A Kind of Intimacy and most of my other writing started to come when I was almost house-bound for a couple of years with a tiny child.

I've also got plans for novel number three, a live lit show with the poet Jo Bell, finishing my short story collection and an idea for a radio play is forming. I don't know how to write radio plays, but I'm going to give it a whirl.

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

JA: I already mentioned the ignominy of coming from Preston. We're a shy lot. There's a lot of tall-poppy syndrome here although that's getting better. It took me ages to start calling myself a writer, to 'come out' and for a while I was away in other cities doing events and readings and workshops for other people's libraries and bookshops and festivals and when I was at home, I wasn't involved with any of that. It's different now though. Although I love the parks and the train station and the river and the canal, parts of this city are spectacularly ugly and I suppose I'm much more interested in the ordinary, the drab, the unattractive, quiet things in life and those things are much more likely to be the subject of my fiction than evocative foreign settings and glamorous people leading interesting lives. I don't like the 'gritty northern writer' label but there's something to it, whether I like it or not.

Thank you, Jenn, for that insight into a part of the UK I don't know very well, but am now very intrigued by. I do know that Lancaster has an excellent literary festival, so maybe this October I'll take the chance to go up and explore a little. Jenn's blog is Every Day I Lie a Little.

As ever, please email me if you'd like to be part of the Writing&Place series! Any writer, any place...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Drinking Vessels and Miss Things

I have flu. Or something. It's very very boring. So to spice things up I thought I'd show off my latest drinking vessel!

Nice, eh? I was getting more White Road & Other Stories postcards printed (100% recycled paper, mmmm) and amongst the myriad of other tat they offered me, I couldn't find the strength to resist this. It's B&W, and I am not a fan of shiny white mugs, but still, it kind of cheers me up. Silly!

On a more serious note, I very often want to blog about books I've just read and loved, and very often get distracted and don't quite make it. Now I have time on my hands and am not too feverish, I'm grabbing the chance to rave about this book: Miss Thing by Nora Chassler, published by Two Ravens Press. I won a free copy in a Two Ravens giveaway, and was not really sure what to expect. But I was utterly blown away by this book.

First, this is not a short story collection. That might seem like an odd place to start, but I would actually rather say what this astonishing book is not than what it is. To call it a novel would, in my opinion, diminish its power. It is a book-length work, written in compelling, astonishing prose, twisting and winding several characters' stories together, so excellently that I couldn't put it down. I have recently read several books by Well-Known Authors, which I won't name, which did this in different ways and all frustrated and disappointed me enormously. One book started with a main character I got very attached to, then, in the next of what I would discover where 4 sections, moved to another main character, then another and another, never returning to the first. I felt utterly cheated. Another book had about 100 main characters -honestly! - and there was no one character I could attach myself to. It made me dizzy. What is this all about?

But Miss Thing does this extremely well. It feels natural because these characters' lives are bound up together, and because Nora Chassler dips you in and out of each of them, it never disorients.

Also, there is a wonderful quirkiness about the fact that the whole book is not someone narrating but seems to be each character writing down parts in different formats - a journal, a note to another character written on the back of a paper bag, the first draft of a play. This could be a "gimmick" but it wowed me. The ending is oddly optimistic and also felt very right. I worry when I read a "novel" that I will immerse myself and then it will simply trail off and I will regret the time I spent. Not here. If there was any justice, this book would win major prizes (and if they were under the "Novel" category, I wouldn't care).

An excerpt:
Basically, you just know to look in the sky for the moon and not under the park bench you’re sitting on – that’s Heidegger’s Comportment. He says it’s an inherent logic, an ingrained connection between me and the world. Well, sorry guy, but on a subtler level I don’t know where the hell to look. Today (back in school after being subjected to a lecture / saki-soaked lunch special with a sleazier-than-ever Lew) I embarrassed myself in ‘Kafka in Context’ because I hadn’t noticed that the protagonist in The Judgment, uh, kills himself at the end. Plus, I like, REALLY LIKED IT. I read it like THREE FUCKING TIMES. 
I will attempt at some point to see if I can interview Ms Chassler about Miss Thing and get a little background to it. In the meantime, read an interview with her in the Sunday Times. I imagine it was fiendishly hard to write. I don't say this often, but if you love truly original and powerful writing, get a copy.  

Just briefly, another great book I just-read-and-loved, which is a story collection, was And Then We Saw the Flames by Daniel A. Hoyt. Jason reviewed this book for the Short Review, and to thank me (unnecessarily!) Dan Hoyt was kind enough to send me a copy of his book, refusing all monetary recompense. I was thinking I would dip into it every now and again. Then I started reading and couldn't stop. I loved these stories. Quirky, yes, but entirely in the service of the story. Here's an excerpt from the story Amar:

Yesterday Amar ate a half box of raisins, two crusts of bread cemented together with toasted cheese, seven grapes, and three squares broken off a chocolate bar. He didn’t even have time to be hungry. Benji required the hours of the moon, and the restaurant demanded the hours of the sun, and the skinheads, their hate as dark as an eclipse, stole ticks of the clock from both celestial objects.

The skinheads were rude, beer-smelling, shaven but unwashed and pimply, and they wanted to grind his business under them, under feet shod with boots and cruelty. They took up the brain cells that Amar had reserved for other things: the dew of his (now-absent) wife’s morning kisses, how Benji had metamorphosed from babying to crawling to toddlering to talking, the pleasure of Istanbul receding into the horizon. Instead, the skinheads demanded this space, etched their thick black swastikas into the flesh of his memories.
Read the rest of the story in the Kenyon Review.

So, a new mug and two new writers whose next books I am eagerly awaiting. I wish I could list all the other books and stories I've loved recently but my flu-addled head is having a bit of trouble with it all. I am getting writing done though, which does say something about the state of mind you need for those first drafts. Hmm.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Short Stories Make You Look Posh

I have a rotten cold today which, sadly, meant I had to cancel the already once-postponed (because of snow) reading to Bath Spa Uni Creative Writing undergrads. Not good to read stories if you can't breathe so well, or to sign books if you're nose is unstoppably running. Shame, I was really looking forward to it. But being slightly incapacitated meant I had time to do the Short Review's Short Lit Bits for Jan and Feb. Thanks to Google Alerts for "short stories" and "short story collections", which I trawled through for several hours, I found quite no small number of weird and wonderful goings-on from Short Story Land such as:
Why read short stories? Because, says the Christchurch City Libraries Blog, "They sound posh. Literary, even. 
“What are you reading?” 
“Oh, this? It’s just a little collection of short stories by one of my favourite authors.”
“Ooohh, posh!"...
Read the full blog post on The Short Review blog.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Charity short story anthologies - buy these books!

Just a quickie to direct you all over to The Short Review blog where I've compiled a list of short story anthologies that raise money for charities worldwide. When I started the list I thought it would be quite short... but no! What is it with me and lists? Go buy some books... And read the Feb issue of The Short Review too, of course.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Writing and Place: Sylvia Petter

This blog post has an international flavour, beginning with the wonderful-looking lit mag I received from Zagreb this morning. Called Autsajderski fragmenti, this is apparently its "Book of Love" issue, to which I was invited to submit any of my flash stories which related in some way to love. I was delighted, I had such a great email from the editor, and now here are 5 of my stories in Croatian. All I can tell is... one of them is Plaits, but not sure about the others! My name is there, and a link to my website, so we'll see if I get some Croatian hits. This is lovely, the first time I've been asked for stories to translate into another language, and they say they'd like more. I must find someone who speaks Croatian...

And now to the main part of this post, the latest in my series of Writing&Place guest blogs, this time from Sylvia Petter.On her website, Sylvia introduces herself as "an Australian in Austria and I write fiction, essays and poems," so already there is a sense of ex-pat-ness about her! Sylvia, who blogs at Merc's world, had these answers to my questions:

Tania: Where are you?

Sylvia: I’m all over the place in the space of a mind. Physically, I’m in Vienna, Austria. I have a writing house which I heat with leftover wood. But it’s been so cold lately that I’ve stayed in the family room with the house laptop. As I write I’m on a break at my day job.

T: How long have you been there?

S: I’ve been in Vienna since the end of 2005 when I took early retirement to write. I unretired myself last year and have been at my part-time day job since June. After a lot of back and forth to Sydney over the last few years, I think I´ll be staying put for a while.

I was born in Vienna. My parents had given up on Europe and when I was about 3 we emigrated to Australia. After uni I went back to see my where I was born. The Russians had just invaded Czechoslovakia and this part of Europe, including Vienna, was a dreary place. I met the man who would become my husband and we left. It was only years later after the UN came and the U-Bahn was built that I started visiting again. It was a toss-up between Sydney and Vienna. Vienna won. There´s a small Anglo writing scene, but I also participate in local events where there´s delight in the moment more than anything else. I also have an interesting day job; try getting a job in Sydney by saying: “I´m only 53 on Facebook …” Anyway, I´m no good in the heat. Yep. I think I´ll be in Vienna for the foreseeable future.

T: What do you write?

 S: I write short stories, snippets, nonsense, novels, novellas, essays... I like to play with words. I finished a PhD in Creative Writing last year. Although it nearly killed me and played havoc with my creative writing, the critical exercise certainly stretched my mind. I’m working on a photo/bio book on my mother’s craft work. I have two novels to revise and I’m itching to get started on those makeovers. I blog sporadically at Merc's world: writin and ruminations and I wonder what screenwriting would be like.

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

S: Hmm. For a long time I only worked on the internet. This was in the pre-web days when we gophered text right and left. I was living in France close to Geneva at the time, feeling isolated, wanting to learn to write, wanting to claim my mother tongue after years of communicating in trilingual mishmash, wondering if I even had the right to write. Many of my early stories were a result of the physical me joining the Geneva Writers´ Group and the ethereal me working online in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp. The Aussie bush seeped into many of my early stories, as did some political stances. I rarely wrote about Geneva. Maybe it was too close. I remember being affected by the rise of Le Pen in France (how did he get to have that name?) but I was too close geographically, so I ended up doing a fair amount of research and setting the story in Austria. Now that I live in Austria, I don’t write about this country. But the bush is never far away. Yet when I went back last year I found it wasn’t the bush I used to know, nor was the country the one I had left.

I don’t fit in anywhere, but that doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m learning to let the “not fitting in” be the way of my flow. Why not find a new form for my to-be-revised “novels”? I don’t really care what shelf my books lie on: my first story collection, The Past Present, was published as an eBook back when the idea of that medium failed to take off; my second, Back Burning, was published initially in print in Australia, and for a short time I felt I’d come home. Now, the place of home is of lesser importance, as are all the strategies and appropriate procedures. Maybe it’s time that affects my writing? So much and so little in one single space.

Thank you Tania, for your questions. The last one kept me pondering most of the night.

Thank you so much, Sylvia, for giving us insight into your life, writing and location. Here's to "not-fitting-in-ness"! Check out Sylvia's blog, Merc's world, and the other writing&place guest blog posts, or do one yourself! Drop me an email, as ever.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Music makes me happy

After a rather crappy day (see previous post) we went to see an amazing band tonight, The Carolina Chocolate Drops! One of the joys of being in the UK is the wealth of great live music just a short walk from our house. It made me SO happy, I thought I'd share it with you all! Tomorrow is another day...

Roller-coaster ride

It's all ups and downs, 2010, so far. The hugely exciting news is from a writer friend that I am not allowed to share yet.. but congratulations, you know who you are!

My good news is that my story, Mugs, has been accepted for the wonderful 100 Stories for Haiti charity anthology, alongside many writer friends and familiar names - Claudia Boers, Katy Darby, Lauri Kubuitsile, Sylvia Petter, Julia Bohanna, Dan Powell, Nuala Ni Chonchuir, Martin Reed, Joel Willans, Teresa Stenson, Vanessa Gebbie, Patti Jazanoski, Alex irvine, Steve Moran, Charlie Berridge and others. The full list is here, more information soon on how to get hold of a copy.

The bad news today is that my application for an Arts Council grant for my writer-in-residence position at the University's Science Faculty was rejected. I am pretty upset about that - I moved to England with some dream of readily available funding for all sorts of Arts - but that was a fantasy, I know. It's a recession, everyone's struggling. I will try not to be too down and think of new ways to fund my residency. I did go to an excellent event last night run by Spread the Word about writers-in-residence which was very inspiring - and made some great contacts, so will ask for advice.

To end on a more positive note, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association asked me to contribute to their Top Tips for Writing a Story for Radio to help anyone thinking of entering their 600-word short story competition. There are some great ideas in there, click on the link to open the PDF, then enter the comp. Entries will be accepted between Feb 15th- March 31st. Good luck!

Monday, February 01, 2010

A great week

I was feeling a bit bleurgh last week, partly due to feeling a little lost after deciding that I wasn't going to work at night, partly due to a couple of rejections all on the same day, and January looking like a Rejection Zone, what a way to start the year etc... etc... But then on Wednesday I headed down on the train to the Arvon Foundation's beautiful Devon writing centre, Totleigh Barton and things started looking much brighter. I didn't really know quite what I had been invited to do - I knew it was a school group, I knew I'd read and answer questions, but apart from that I wasn't sure.

I discovered when I got there that during the months they are not open to the public, Arvon run courses for many different groups which are similar in structure to the public ones: a group of 16 or so participants live in, with two writers who run a 6 day writing course, and there is a guest writer who comes half way through for one evening's reading. There are workshops in the mornings, and the participants cook dinner!

I have been on two Arvon courses in the last 8 years and it is no exaggeration to say that they were life changing. The first course, in 2002, was Writing & Science, a new topic for Arvon. When I saw it advertised I couldn't believe that there were other people who wanted to do what I wanted to do! The thing was: I didn't know how. And that 6-day course showed me how to let myself be inspired by science fact and turn it into fiction. It also showed me that I could write on demand - the tutors said, "Go off, write something, and come back and read", and what do you know? I could. Amazing. (I also met my partner J there, so it really was life-changing in all respects...)!

The second course, a few years later, was on short stories, and the tutors were Ali Smith and Toby Litt. Ali Smith was one of the reasons I wanted to write short stories in the first place. And so when we had a one-on-one tutorial and she told me to give up the day job and write full time because I was "the real thing", it blew my mind. Another milestone.

Coming back to Totleigh Barton, where this second course was held, was very moving for me. It's amazing to mark the passing of time: 2006 - me paying to come on a course; 2010 - me being invited and paid for, book in hand!

The reading went very well - I think. I say that because it was in a big barn and I didn't wear my glasses (ah, time...!) and so couldn't see the faces of the sixth-formers from 2 Bristol schools who were having a wonderful writing week with their teachers! I talked about my journey, read some flash stories and the beginning of a story from my book that I'd started writing there in 2006, and answered excellent questions, such as "How come you seem so happy?"! I liked that one. "Because I get to come here and talk about short stories," was the simple answer. The students were all very interested in writing, they are writing themselves, and I was really inspired by being with them, by answering their questions and listening to them talk about writing. And -they bought 10 books, all the copies I brought with me, that was quite a surprise too.

I also had a great time meeting the two excellent tutors, playwright Diane Samuels and Bristol-based novelist Chris Wakling, the teachers from the two schools, and Totleigh Barton centre directors Claire and Ollie. Looking forward to seeing them all again. I came back to Bristol the next day feeling re-energised and re-inspired. Hope I get to go back.

And then yesterday, just slipping in there before January left, some very lovely news. I think I mentioned that my play, Exchange Rates, which I adapted from my short story, was shortlisted for the Total Beast 6-Minute Play competition, and that all the shortlisted plays were being performed. We went to London for the performance, and I was really moved by how well the actors performed my play. It was just wonderful seeing it brought to life so well. (Of course I wanted to tweak it a little, but there you are!). After the performances, the director asked any of the writers in the audience to come onstage. I was a little freaked out by that, suddenly getting shy, but then we stood there and he announced the winner.


Yup! Big big shock. Really. Just having the play performed was a thrill. But a lovely cheque, which is greatly appreciated, as well as a critique of whatever script I choose to give her by a professional editor, which is a wonderful prize.

So now I am doubly, triply inspired! Now I want to write a play from scratch... and, after a fabulous creative brainstorming meeting with Philipa from the University's Centre for Public Engagement today, I want to write a science play, and maybe a film... and maybe something animated... and...

So, February dawns and 2010 is looking brighter. No snow this week, yet. And more inspirational events to keep my spirits up - am going to talk to undergrad Creative Writing students at Bath Spa Uni next week, where I did my MA. Don't tell anyone, but I think I might get more out of doing these events than they do. Shhhhh.