Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Arvon and Permissions

I just got back from the most wonderful week tutoring a short story course, together with the fabulous Adam Marek, at the Arvon Foundation's heavenly Totleigh Barton centre! There is always something magical about an Arvon course - after so many years they just have the formula right, the combination of a small group, a focussed five days of workshops and one-to-one meetings, the constant supply of food, including dinner cooked by a different quartet of participants each night, and the remote setting with gorgeous views!

But this time there was an extra special dash of fairy dust - maybe something to do with the group being particularly serene, creative, curious and willing to do any of the crazy things Adam and I asked of them! Many many new stories were begun last week, by the two of us too. And the staff - Claire, Olly, Steph, Eliza, Bridget, Caroline, Huxley - making us feel so at home. And the luminous Helen Dunmore, our special guest, talking to us so candidly about her life and work.


Adam's written a brilliant blow-by-pasty account of our week here, (how did I miss the pasties?) so I won't go over that, but I wanted to talk about one concept that kept coming up during the course: Permission. Permission to write about anything you want, in any style you want. And where does that permission come from? 

I have seen this in my own writing career - I can almost pinpoint other people's work that has opened my eyes and allowed me to try something I'd never tried before. Never thought of before.(All Over, a short story collection by Roy Kesey, was a revalation in 2007).

And it really hit home to me, how important this is - and, thus, how vital it is to read everything you can get hold of - when I was talking to undergraduates at Bath Spa Uni, my old alma mater, recently. I talked, of course, about using science as inspiration for fiction. Someone put their hand up and said, "So, do you think it's okay to use anything as inspiration, science, or maybe history?" I said Yes, I do, I think everything is up for grabs, and it wasn't until afterwards that I realised that perhaps I had just given that questioner permission he might have needed, that he hadn't just taken it as a given that a fiction writer can scavenge from anywhere. That really made me think.

This came up in an article in this weekend's Guardian review, a profile of Gerard Woodward:
At the same time, he was encountering the two authors whose work would mold the tone and temper of his own. "I was reading Updike and Nabokov for the first time. Updike showed me it was possible to write in a realist way, with a poetic approach. I'd never come across his blend of poetic sensibility and prosaic imagination in realist fiction before. Nabokov blew me away for the same reasons; not quite as down to earth, but he has the same qualities of poetry and playfulness. I found reading them both incredibly liberating, and permission-giving for what I wanted to do. They were the presiding spirits when I was writing August [the first novel in the trilogy]. Everything fell into place, after years of struggling both with novels and autobiography in poetry. I thought, at last I've found a way of writing about autobiographical material that works for me."
[Read the full article here.]
What has given you permission in your writing? Care to share? A person? A book? A film? A TV show? I'd love to have a discussion about it! The flipside of permission is taboo, and I planted this thought in our Arvon participants' minds on Day One: What wouldn't you write about, whether it's something that society considers taboo or it's personal? And what might be a taboo for you in how you write? No writing from the opposite sex, for example, or the 3rd person plural?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Reviewed in the TLS, oh my!

So, after some scouring of newsagents in North Devon - where we are currently located for a bit of peace and quiet - we finally tracked down a copy of the new issue of the Times Literary Supplement with the review of My Mother Was An Upright Piano. I was pretty nervous, I made J read it while I watched his facial expressions. I had so many worst case scenarios running through my head. It's the TLS, for goodness sake!

Turns out the worst case didn't happen. Firstly, I am delighted that the reviewer at the TLS to whom I sent the book (after he'd briefly mentioned me positively in a review of Lee Rourke's A Brief History of Fables, which features a few of my flash stories) didn't just toss it aside, but took the time to seriously engage with my writing, even putting it into historical context. He must have so many books he might review, that to be singled out is an immense honour. It's worth saying again, that for a short story writer with no literary agent, published by a small press, to be noticed is immensely heartening. And a note to all your unagented writers published by small presses - I took the initiative here, so don't be shy, just do it, give reviewers a chance to consider your work! (Yes, it turned out to be fairly scary, but worth it!)

OK, so here's the review. Your thoughts? Can you read it?If you right-click on View Image, then you can zoom in, I hope.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Some bits of news...

First, Happy National Short Story Week! Check out their website for what's going on this week.

So, a little catch-up: if you'd still like to hear me, in the amazing company of Don Paterson, Tony Harrison, Laura Barber and the Lakeside Poets, on Radio 3's The Verb, it is available as a podcast, which should, I believe, be still there even after tomorrow night's new episode, maybe? It was a real thrill listening to it again, what fun!

Book news:
There's a lovely review of MMWAUP in The Bookbag this week: " It's said that the art of short-story writing is totally different from that of novels as the writer only has ten or so pages to accomplish what others do in two to three hundred. Imagine, therefore, telling an entire story in prose conveying depth and meaning in fewer words than this review. It may be difficult but, apparently, not downright impossible as Tania Hershman has nailed it with honours." You can read Ani Johnson's full review here.

Slightly scary book news:
And so it turns out that MMWAUP will receive a second review this week - in the Times Literary Supplement! Gulp. I don't know what the review says, but I see from the newly-released contents page for tomorrow's edition that it's sandwiched between reviews of Rose Tremain and JK Rowling! As an unagented author published by a very small (and wonderful) press, I think that's worth celebrating on its own, regardless of the content of the review - may it pave the way for many more such books!

Overheard anthology

Talking of wonderful small presses, my first publisher, Salt, has just brought out a fantastic anthology, Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, edited by Jonathan Taylor. I have a very short story in the anthology, where I am in the excellent company of, among others, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, Louis De Bernières, Adele Parks, Kate Pullinger, Adam Roberts, Michelene Wandor, Vanessa Gebbie, Judith Allnatt, Jo Baker, David Belbin, Panos Karnezis, Jane Holland, Gemma Seltzer, Ailsa Cox and Will Buckingham. As it says on the tin, it's all about "reconnecting storytelling with its oral and performative roots. There are stories here for performance, stories which play with sound, stories which dramatise conflicting voices, and stories which are musical in style."  I can't wait for my contributor's copy!

And finally, I am delighted to announce that The Short Review is back! With a new look and a new format,  but the same high quality reviews of short story collections and anthology and author interviews that you've come to love over the five years (this month) of our existence. Go check out the new reviews and let us know what you think! Also on Twitter and Facebook, of course.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Verb - Tonight!

The episode of Radio 3's The Verb that was recorded at the BBC's Freethinking Festival last Saturday night - and on which I am reading two brand new flash stories on the subject of editing - will be broadcast on Radio 3 tonight, at 10pm UK time. It will also be available online through the iPlayer for 7 days afterwards. I think it was a fantastic programme - with poets Don Paterson and Tony Harrison, Granta editor Laura Barber, and music from The Lakeside Poets! Do tune in, let me know whether my "editing" stories chime with your experiences ;) More information here.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Radio 3!

Just a very quick blog post as I pause for a moment on my travels to say that I will be live in Gateshead tomorrow night at the BBC's Freethinking Festival, reading two newly-commissioned flash stories on the subject of editing on The Verb - in the exalted company of Don Paterson, Tony Harrison and Laura Barber of Granta. Am a little nervous... I believe the program will be streamed live on the Internet from the event, and then broadcast on Radio 3 next Friday night, Nov 9th, The Verb's regular slot. I am really looking forward to meeting the host, Ian McMillan - last time I was on, in July, I did it from a distance, from Bristol. I loved hearing him say "My Mother Was An Upright Piano" in that wonderful voice of his, can't wait for a second one! Wish me luck...