Monday, 16 December 2013

Shop of Curiosities: an interview with artist Nicola Hebson

On my blog today, I'm delighted to host Nicola Hebson, artist and taxidermist, who leads the Taxidermy Tuesday course at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. The course runs in partnership with Blackburn is Open, a project to showcase Blackburn's creative and business acumen; Blackburn is open to: ideas, creativity, business, people and you. A fantastic scheme to regenerate the heart of the city. 

I asked Nicola about her artwork.
"Other mediums I work in include acrylic painting, drawing, resin jewellery, a little bit of photography, and I also love making dream catchers. I love to get stuck into anything crafty but one of my main loves has to be painting. Taxidermy kind of started towards the end of university when I wanted to try something new. I've always been fascinated by nature and had the idea to try and preserve the beautiful feathers and furs you see on the roadside left to rot away.

I practised on a tiny little mouse as my first project which was kind of a disaster but I still love him as it shows how much I've progressed. I used to hate taxidermy as a child because I thought it was sinister and disturbing. I could not grasp the idea why someone would kill an animal and stuff it. Then when I started seeing roadkill all over Lancashire near where I live I wanted to try and preserve the skins and recreate them into funny, quirky little mounts.

I think it started when I was at college and I had an idea to start photographing roadkill, then I began collecting bones and feathers. Then eventually I decided to try out taxidermy for myself. I was at a stage in my life where I wanted to push myself to try things I would never usually try and, believe it or not, I am very squeamish! Well, I was, I guess now I'm more used to things. It took me a year to overcome the fear of taking the brains out of an animal skull by hand, and now I find it really fun! I think when you are face-to-face with death and decay, you start to realise how precious life is, and any fear of darkness and weird, spooky things kind of dissolves. I'm not really scared of anything anymore. When I was little even looking at a photograph of a skull used to send a cold shiver down my spine. But nowadays I have learned to see the beauty in all aspects of life including death."

Is there anything you'd love to taxidermy, given the opportunity?
"I would really like to taxidermy a cat one day, I just think that they are so beautiful. When I was young I saw a dead cat hanging in a bag from a tree and it has haunted me ever since. If I taxidermied a naturally deceased cat now then maybe it would help me to overcome that horrible memory as I would preserve it in a beautiful way."

How do people react to your work?
"I get all kinds of reactions to my work, and I wouldn't want it any other way! I think it's great to be loved and hated at the same time as it means my work reaches all kinds of people and always evokes some kind of emotion rather than just being overlooked or compared. 

I think when people get to know me and my personality it often changes their views. They realise how much I love animals, and that I am doing ethical taxidermy in a loving way. When I was little I wanted to be either a vet, or an artist, and now I am both! I see it this way - I am creating art pieces from the outer shells of animals that would otherwise be left to rot, and in doing so, reminding fellow humans about our closeness to animals and that we should take extra care to look after them. In children's books, like Winnie the Pooh for example, all the animals are anthropomorphic, and anthropomorphism is a theme which has been carried through civilisations since cave man times. I recently found a roadkill hedgehog lying on the side of the road. He looked so sad as he lay there all cold and full of dirt. The cars were all whizzing past without a care. I took him home and stuffed him. It was very difficult to do because of his sharp spines, but I got there in the end. I didn't know what he was going to turn out like but I had a good feeling about it. I remember putting the final stitches into his belly and propping him up, adjusting the wires in his feet, and I made a few finishing touches to his face and then I took a step back and I did a huge grin. Harrison the hedgehog was reborn and he was dancing. I had recycled a piece of roadkill into a beautiful, most amazing dancing hedgehog that went on to inspire and create such delight in all who met him. Everyone who knew me was talking about Harrison. And everyone had completely fallen in love with him. 

I think that's the difference between my taxidermy and traditional taxidermy trophy mounts. I don't see my taxidermy as my 'prize', a thing I have caught, killed and shown off to evoke how fantastic a hunter I am, that is just the work of the ego.

My taxidermy is the antithesis of that. And that is what I want to show people. My taxidermy is about love, imagination, and positivity! I have a strong connection with nature, and I've even had a dream about the spirit of a fox that I taxidermied and buried in the garden. I dreamt that the fox was dancing around the bottom of the garden on two legs! It was such a wonderful dream. I always see animal characteristics in people, too. This also inspires me to make taxidermy pieces based on them. I know of a beautiful relationship between a squirrel spirit and a frog spirit in two people and I would love to represent this in taxidermy as I have a frog and a squirrel in my freezer at the moment. 

All of my pieces have a unique and sentimental story, in the same way that my paintings do. I can understand why some people think taxidermy is odd and gruesome, but it's really not. I mean, squirting red paint onto a pallet, is that not gruesome? A lot of people are scared of spiders, but maybe it's because their parents told them to be scared of them, or they watched a scary film about spiders as a child. When I was at university I decided to push my boundaries, follow my intuition and see how scary death and decay really was. I found beauty in it, and I also found freedom. Fear is not real, and it only ever holds you back. When skinning an animal for the first time you are facing a fear in a way; it is something very unusual. But as you get to the final stages of the taxidermy process and you see what a lovely creation you have preserved, it reminds you that death isn't as macabre as it's made out to be. It may sound ironic but ethical taxidermy has helped me to become a more spiritual person."

How are you involved with Blackburn is Open?
"Blackburn is Open is a project currently running in Blackburn helping creative people to get their business ideas off the ground. They are such a lovely group of people who are really motivated to get Blackburn to become arty again and full of life like it once was. The scheme is backed by designer Wayne Hemingway of fashion label Red or Dead. He's a very inspiring man and we are really lucky to have his support! Blackburn shall have its own unique identity with more than just shops and takeaways. I plan to open a shop in the town next year which shall be fully supported by the Blackburn is Open scheme. The shop shall be called Nicola Hebson's Curiosity Shop. It will not be your average shop. In fact it will be like walking into my mind. It will be interactive. I will hold events and workshops, including more taxidermy workshops, film nights, talks, evening parties and gatherings. I will showcase my jewellery line Dead Good Jewellery, my taxidermy pieces, paintings and there will also be a seating area for people to relax in and read strange books from my own mini library. My studio will be at the back of the shop. I want the shop to be a friendly and positive curiosity shop. Something new and unique!

You can keep up to date with me on my website, taxidermy Facebook page, Dead Good jewellery Facebook page and website and instagram @roadkillgoddess."

Many thanks, Nicola; I can't wait to visit the new curiosity shop soon! Also, thank you to Blackburn is Open, for investing time and capital in Blackburn's fantastic artists and creatives. 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Carys Bray's 'A Song for Issy Bradley' Proof Prize Draw... and the winner is... ME!

This arrived this week!

I can't really express adequately just how delighted I am!

'A Song for Issy Bradley', Carys's first novel, recently sparked a massive publisher bidding war (the sort of thing every writer dreams of!) Read about it here.

I 'Liked' the novel's Facebook page and won a prize draw for a copy of the proof. And I never, ever win anything! I'm so thrilled. Not only did I get the proof, but Carys very generously also threw in a 'Books are my Bag' tote as well. Feels like Christmas came early in the Schofield house.

I am doubly lucky, in that I've had the opportunity to read a few sections of Carys's novel already. I am a massive fan of her writing. I reviewed Carys's Scott Prize winning short story collection, Sweet Home, last year. Carys is a writer who gets to the heart of human experience. You know when you read a passage that is so strikingly true and perceptive that you want to read it out loud to someone? That happens all the time for me in her stories. I am so excited to get to read the proof.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

And here it is...

Introducing Chris, my first ever taxidermy mouse. He was supposed to be Gabriel mouse, dressed up in an angel costume with wings, halo and tiny trumpet, but the gown I'd made for him in advance of the workshop swamped him. In a way, I was glad - he doesn't seem like an angel mouse now he's made. He is an everyday down to earth sort of mouse who enjoys a stroll to the pub in smart jacket and jeans. My mother has promised to dig out my old Sylvanian families and strip them of their belongings to give to Chris. And I will make him a tiny felt Christmas hat so he looks a bit festive.

I loved the Taxidermy Tuesday workshop with Nicola Hebson this week. However, taxidermy is much, much harder than I'd imagined. In principle, Nicola's taxidermy technique is simple, clear and precise. The challenge comes in the delicacy you need to do it well and having artistic vision for shaping your creation. I'd previously thought myself to be quite dextrous. (I'm good at untangled jewellery chains and can always find the end of the sellotape roll) but suddenly, with the pelt of a tiny mouse at stake, my fingers seemed to turn to cumberland sausages and the scalpel trembled in my hand like a hungover surgeons.

Firstly, Nicola showed us how to skin the mouse. You start by making a cut from between the shoulder blades to about a centimetre above its tail. Then, you massage the pelt away from the body, making tiny cuts with your scalpel to cut away the epidermis layers. You have to be very careful not to slice the pelt or the body cavity (the internal organs don't smell fabulous, and you need to spend quite a lot of time close up to the carcass as you take it out of its skin.)

I'd always thought myself unsqueamish. I have cleared numerous animal bits off numerous carpets from the cats I've had in my life. And when I was about seven, having watched, delighted, the rabbit hopping around our front garden and named it 'Easter Bunny' I was intrigued and fascinated, rather than devastated to come downstairs on Easter morning to find the bunny disembowelled across the front room, the 'curly whirly bits' as I later recapped to all who would listen, being chewed over by my beloved first cat, Thomas. I can deal with blood, guts, gore, skin, inside-out animals. I've been plucking pheasants (steady...) left by rural neighbours since I was little. And I thought this would be more of the same. But this did feel different somehow. Being that close, taking it delicately apart was a bit challenging. Once the pelt was off (taking care not to damage ears, nose, whiskers, etc.) the inner body of the mouse stayed on our work stations for us to use for scaling the inner frame of our mouse. That little red faetal-esque scrap had more of an impact on me than I'd expected.

After this the skin needs salting. This helps to cure and preserve the pelt. Then the pelt is washed, then dried with a hair dryer. A surreal experience.

Then you use wood wool to make the inside of the mouse, squeezing it into a tight shape and binding it round with thread to smooth away lumps that would show through the pelt. And form a mouse head  shape out of critter clay. You use pipe cleaners to stiffen the back paws and pad out the body with cotton wool.

The the back of the mouse is stitched up and eyes pinned into place.

This is a photograph of the people who attended the workshop with our mice. Some clever people even managed to get their mice dressed up properly for the photo!

The two mice above are my favourites of all the other mice, created by two very talented people on the workshop. Such personality and expression in the little creatures. Next to them, my Chris mouse looks a bit of a Frankenstein's monster. (but I still love him!)

Look out soon, for my third and final blog post on Nicola Hebson's Taxidermy, and a little about the organisation that made the workshops possible, Blackburn is Open. In the meantime, click on the link for info and more photographs from the taxidermy workshops.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Anthropomorphic Taxidermy Class

I'm so excited!

Tomorrow, I will fulfil an ambition I've had for many years; tomorrow I will create my first ever taxidermy art piece.

I am delighted to be attending the Anthropomorphic Taxidermy course at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery led by taxidermist and artist Nicola Hebson. I can't wait to meet her. I love her work and cherish the opportunity to learn from her. You can see some of her beautiful pieces and read about her fantastic ethos on her website, and also on her Facebook page.

Tomorrow I will taxidermy a mouse. And it will probably be arranged and dressed as the angel Gabriel, if I can find the appropriate props and make a suitable costume; halo, gown, trumpet and feathered wings.

This course comes at a critical point for me. It taps directly into my thinking and writing around the subject of anthropomorphism, which is the theme running through the stories in my current work in progress; my first solo short story collection.

From an early age, I've been fascinated by automata, taxidermy and animal personification. I have a massive soft spot for Walter Potter's dioramas. The line between living and dead intrigues me; how we project life, animation and personality onto things that lack them, or give voice and action to inanimate things. I see this echoed in lots of ways; think children projecting life onto their toys and adults buying phones with personalities that talk back to them. We stuff stuff to make it look more real than real. We put emoticon expressions into the body of our texts. Flea circuses, robots and self aware food labels... Why do we do all these things? Are the reasons varied and abstract or does it come down to something quite narrow and fundamental to our human experience? These are the questions I want to explore in the short stories I write for the collection. And doing the taxidermy course with Nicola Hebson tomorrow feels like a fantastic way into some of the narratives. Hands on experience - research in its truest sense.

To find out more about Taxidermy Tuesdays at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, and for future courses and further details see Nicola Hebson's Facebook page. And do pop back here to see what I manage to create on the course tomorrow!

Friday, 8 November 2013

I got my first ever pair of glasses last week. I'm finding them hard to get to grips with it.

I've not had an eye test for over 20 years. The last one being at primary school, when I did the obligatory spot the numbers in the coloured dots to check I wasn't colour blind.

Going to the opticians was an ordeal. I am not actually having problems seeing stuff - everything (luckily, considering my family optical history) is actually very crisp and clear. The optician asked me what the problem was.

"I keep feeling sort of dizzy."

"Right. I see. Does this happen ever when you're driving?"

"Sometimes, yes."


"But I am a safe driver, I'm not like passing out or anything. I can still control the vehicle." (I imagine him reaching under the desk for his traffic police emergency button. I imagine getting back to my car to find it has been clamped and a law enforcer enforcing my keys from my sweaty, panic stricken hand.)

"It also sometimes happens when I am standing too near to someone when I'm talking, it makes me feel like I have to look away, like I might fall over if I don't." (I imagine the law enforcer standing too close as he requisitions my keys and me keeling over onto the tarmac.) I gulp nervously. I think I might cry.


He asks me to look through the goggle box testing machine thing and checks me with a series of different images. He asks me which is clearer, slide A or slide B. He talks in such a gentle, patient way that I feel bad that both slides both look pretty much the same and  I'm so desperate to please him that I make up some of my answers.

He shows me pictures of my eyeballs. I pretend to be impressed, although TBH they look pretty gross that close up. He tells me I am a tiny bit longsighted and therefore can legitimately enter the great world of speccy-four-eyeness (my words, not his) I am not sure how I feel about this.

I find myself in the glasses showroom with a lady who is responsible for helping me choose my glasses. I stand there indecisively while she tries to peddle me a pair from the most expensive range. I steer us towards the value collection. I think about all my friends who wear glasses, who, without exception, look totally rad in their spectacles. I try on one pair after another and look like a bit of a tit.

"What about those ones?" I point at some rectangular dark framed ones. "I read somewhere that you are supposed to pick the shape that is least like your actual head shape."

The woman looks at me dubiously. What the hell do you know about it, glasses virgin, her twinkly blue eyes say. I giggle like the virgin that I am. We try every pair on in the rack.

"I'm sorry, I'm taking up all your time," I mutter after a couple of minutes. "I'm normally very decisive." She says it's fine. Really. I wish she would go away and let me embarrass myself alone in the privacy of the open shop window. We try on some more. I start getting dizzy, despite the lenses being clear and neutral.

"Perhaps you'd like to come back with a friend," she suggests. I think about ringing my lovely husband, himself a cool classically-trained glasses wearerer. But then feel a mother-induced feminist stab of guilt that I should just be able to Do It by myself.

"What about those?" I reach for the NHS old-lady-chic glasses on the top rack.

"I don't think so, no," says the woman, slapping my hand away.

I give in and settle for the ones she tells me look best. I am not sure. It might be because one of my ears is higher than the other, so I will always look a bit cockeyed in them anyway.

I giggle awkwardly when I go back a few days later to collect them. "We've never seen someone so excited to collect their glasses," says the sales assistant. I ask her what I'm supposed to do with them.

"Wear them, honey."

"I mean, when... Do I wear them like, now? Like, to go home in?" I remember being a little girl at Startrite getting patent shoes for the first time not sure whether to keep them in the box or put them on.

"If you like, but really they're only for when you're eyes are tired. Or if you're driving"

I drive home with the glasses in my bag. I'm afraid to put them on in case I crash. The dark rim in my periphery gives me two massive blind spots... and I am worried motorists will be distracted by the odd woman in wonky glasses coming towards them and side swipe me.

I have worn my glasses a little since. Although my mother advises me not to wear them as I'll develop lazy eyes. But there is something in 'putting on your glasses'; a bit like putting on a hat for a specific task that I quite enjoy doing in private.

I would add though, they don't seem to have done much to ease the dizziness.

Friday, 1 November 2013

 I was recently discussing a new story with a friend. The setting, I knew, would be during the First World War  - the dates for what I wanted to explore in the story were right about then, and I've been hungry to write something set in this period for a while now. But I hadn't fixed on a specific location. It was all feeling a bit untethered.

Then my friend told me about a recent trip she had taken with her family to Arras, France, after discovering that a family member had died in the trenches there. They felt a pull to see the site and try to find his grave. While they were there they also visited the Boves in Arras, a complex network of tunnels and caves dug out under the city during Roman and Medieval times, and extended during the first world war by New Zealand miners and British Bantam Battalions. The cave network housed 24,000 troops near the enemy lines, so that they were able to mount a surprise and sudden attack. It is a fascinating event in the story of the war, and one that was almost forgotten about until archeologist Alain Jacques rediscovered parts of the caves that still remain. There is now a museum where you can see parts of it. I wish I had time to get there for real, but a short turnaround means my research has all been computer based (what the hell did we do before the internet?!) and anecdotal, from my friend, about how it felt to be somewhere that held such great personal significance.

I've been checking all sort of details this week; what were the straps wound around soldiers legs called? Shift patterns in the trenches for sleeping, treatment for shellshock, which occupations were reserved? Precise distances between enemy lines... While it is so important to be accurate with historic details (not just for authenticity but also to avoid finger wagging from readers who like to fact check) I need to remember that humans are humans are humans are humans. I sometimes get to a point with research where I just have to let it go. Step away from it, stop trying to put period detail in where it doesn't sit comfortably and just focus on what my characters would do in a given situation, what they would say. I don't think humans change all that fundamentally, whether we are 200 years back, forward, or in a spaceship circling a white dwarf. Our human motivations, feelings and reactions to things are fairly consistent.

I am humbled and amazed once again by what our armed forces did during the First World War. With Remembrance Day approaching, and next year marking 100 years since the beginning of the war, it feels the right time for this story to be written.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Creative Alternatives

This week I completed a six week course called Creativity in Health. The course is run by Creative Alternatives, an award winning arts on prescription service based in Sefton. Creative Alternatives provide arts on prescription as a remedy for stress, anxiety and depression. The Creativity in Health course is for arts practitioners who want to expand and develop their practice and learn more about arts in healthcare settings. Jessica Bockler, Programme Leader at Creative Alternatives led the course, alongside Philip Wroe, Senior Arts Development Officer at Sefton Council and invited speakers from across a variety of arts in healthcare settings. As well as great teaching and practical tips on pitching, evaluation and practice, Jessica and the course speakers provided invaluable resources and documents.

I feel like I've been on a steep learning curve. There is an awful lot of jargon surrounding arts in health. The course helped me separate the wheat from the chaff and define some of the terms used within the sector, refining and honing my knowledge. I don't like blagging things so pitching for commissions in this sector was a mine field I hadn't felt confident in navigating, which is why I went on the course. I know I deliver great workshops. I know I'm a good facilitator and practitioner, but felt I needed equipping with the right tools to present myself specifically within healthcare contexts. I'm feeling a lot more confident now, and highly recommend the course to arts practitioners wanting to develop their skills in the healthcare setting.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Litfest 2013

I was delighted to be able to make it to another Litfest event this week. Short Stories: Wide Horizons featured Alison Moore and Aamer Hussein hosted by Carys Davies. The event was a reading and opportunity to explore some elements of the short story narrative.

Alison read two short stories from her new collection The Pre-War House and Other Stories. 'Overnight Stop' is about a newly married woman with a delayed flight to her honeymoon destination, who has an encounter with someone from her past. And the second story, 'The Egg' is a darkly disturbing narrative about a man with a special collection.

Aamer followed with 'The Swan' a story about two friends who encounter one another over and over each time failing to quite click decisively in the way the reader / listener desires. They rescue an injured swan called Satin. A profoundly moving and beautiful story. It was a delightful coincidence that these two stories, 'The Swan' and Alison Moore's 'The Egg', had similar motifs and central images, around the swan. Maybe it was just me, but it was hard to separate Aamer's swan from the one in Alison's story. In the serendipity of narrative creation, these two stories sidled up to each other and shook hands. It was lovely.

A great opportunity to hear stories from two writers I admire, particularly Alison whose novel 'The Lighthouse' is the kind of book I just want to give to everyone. And hear their thoughts on narrative creation and the beginnings of stories.  

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Litfest 2013

Litfest, Lancaster's 35 year old annual celebration of Literature, is a highlight of my year. It's ace.

At last night's event, writer Sara Maitland and physicist Rob Appleby discussed Science and the Short Story, hosted by Jim Hinks, an editor at Comma Press.

Sara, a brilliant writer I can't rave about enough, read a story from her new collection Moss Witch. Moss Witch is a collection of stories springing from Comma Press's Science into Fiction series. Sara's is the first solo collection to be made up of science into fiction fusions, where each of the fourteen stories in the collection comes from conversations with consultants at the cutting edge of their various scientific fields. The premise is just so deliciously ambitious. I've been looking forward to getting my paws on it for ages.

Sara read 'Dark Humour' from the collection. It made me cry (the auditorium was dark, thankfully no one noticed). Read it and see if it does the same for you. The story is about a couple, reunited after time apart due to work commitments. Both physicists, in differing fields of work, they grapple with the four elements; earth, air, fire and water. The story explores physic theory through the lens of human emotion and interaction. Grounding these theories in this way, to me, makes them more accessible and processable. I feel it gives readers an 'in' - a hook on which to begin to grow understanding.

Sara spoke about the challenge of finding the narrative in the scientific fact and that some stories sprang more easily than others from the scientific root. There was a fascinating discussion about pattern and rules; the pleasurable symmetry of physics, particularly, that can make it comparable to the structure of poetic forms such as the sonnet. There was lively discussion about the story's exploration of the romantic, and less romantic, names given by the physics community to physical aspects; quarks, gluons, neutrinos, as opposed to NGC 406 and H11.

Rob Appleby, the physicist consultant on this story in the collection, followed Sara's reading by expanding on some of the theory in the story. Rob spoke with passion about the theoretical principles of matter, of particle physics. Rob talks with his hands. I love this. I think things are easier to grasp when people use their hands to further illustrate what they're saying. Perhaps it makes for a better teacher; having an ability to clarify spoken word with physical gesture. Many of us have bad experiences with science, often stemming from it being taught poorly at school (perhaps down to a restrictive curriculum). It can feel like the penny dropping years later, as an adult, when things are explained with such clarity, energy and helpful imagery as Rob Appleby did at last night's reading. I have been doing some research into physics recently, particularly thought experiments, and suddenly I've started noticing things in everyday life that are fundamentally connected to these principles. Seeing things a little differently. My ears prick up when the Hadron Collider is on the news and I understand why Walt White chose Heisenberg as his pseudonym.

Brilliant event, Litfest. Thank you to Sara Miatland, Rob Appleby with all the other consultant scientists and Comma Press for this exciting and important collection. And to Litfest for organising a
great do.

Friday, 18 October 2013

You know how it is... there are no literary festivals, then three come at once. This week I've glutted myself on fantastic literature events.

First off, on Thursday, my bestie and I went to see Will Self reading from his latest novel Umbrella. It was a bloomsbury Festival lecture hosted by UCL, with Dr Nick Shepley, discussing The Madness of the Modern City.

The evening really began when a man on the front row with a camera started taking flash photographs of Will Self. Self asked him to stop. When the man unblushingly bantered back, Self told him to shove the camera up his arse. There were a few sychophantic cheers towards the back of the audience and anxious shuffling through bags and pockets to do the just-in-case OCD check that phones, pagers, any other sources of irritation, really were off. Subsequently, when the photographer continued to take shots while Self read, albeit without the flash on, every time he lifted his camera our whole row, seated just a couple of spaces back, shrank in their seats wincing. I am so averse to confrontation that I wished Self had clarified whether he just didn't like the flash (it was quite distracting) or any photographs at all. It took me a while to let go of this and just enjoy Will Self reading from Umbrella.

But Self reads brilliantly. There is a delight in listening, akin to being a child, hearing a really great story told in all the voices. The novel's stream of consciousness narrative, about the treatment of Audrey De'Ath who has encephalitis lethargica, is fast and intricately written. You feel you need to hold on tight, like the story is a balloon that could spiral away from you if you don't stay focussed.

Self talked later about his interest in writing fiction that demanded more from the reader. He spoke about the intertextuality of the work. About how readers through history have approached literary texts. He talked about correlation between city and mind, about how mental illness is written, prescribed and understood, about the fads and fashions that accompany mental health treatment and dialogue. There was time for questions.

Later, over cocktails, my friend and I discussed the questions we'd wanted to ask Will Self, but didn't, in the aftermath of camera-gate, for fear of being made to look like a tit. Plus, the highly intellectualised evening had given us both a desire to leap lemming-like into the realms of silly. A bit like when you feel a convulsive urge to point out a comedy moment during a cremation, or to burp the alphabet in a meeting with your accountant. Our questions included: 'What is your favourite animal and why?' 'Cake or death?' and 'What would you cook if you were on Come Dine With Me?

But the question I genuinely wanted to ask was about Self's writing process - something I'm always interested to hear about from writers I admire. It was touched on tantalisingly briefly a couple of times and in reference to Elizabeth Day's interview with Self in The Guardian last year, about Self using Post-It notes to map story and research.

There was a dumb pause when Self stated that the literary novel is toast; a dying beast, due to the impulsive short attention spans of generation-COD and the banal narratives propagated via online and digital. (Self explained he wasn't passing judgement on this societal shift, just that he was observing it.)  I found Self's declaration of lit-novel-as-toast a bit trite, (although I don't necessarily disagree) because I think he was saying it to effect reaction from the audience, and I find this desire to shock somewhat feeble. A bit like the vicar who stands at the front of church and declares, anticipating the gasp of surprise, that church is often boring and outdated. But it sparked an interesting conversation later (over more cocktails, natch) about the importance of tat - the kind of inane formulaic and short gratification narrative that Self indicated was the death of the literary novel. Does it perhaps have a role to play as a foil to the cerebral and literary? In the course of a day, when an individual has been working on a task at a particularly intense cerebral level, switching gear from that for a while feels healthy; there is something satisfying about watching or reading or interacting with an undemanding narrative. For my friend, currently undertaking a Phd, spending hours over intense chemistry lab work and processing the sort of statistics that would make Carol Vorderman weep, Eastenders works pretty well as a hit of narrative pleasure and cerebral breathing space. For me, after stints chewing over my own writing, struggling to create something worthwhile, honest, trying to capture in words difficult emotions that are probably best avoided, lunch is down time. Before returning to my writing in the afternoon, lunch is Neighbours time. Every day. Without fail. God help anyone who rings or calls round at 1.45pm. And I know the soap is utter guff, but for me at that point, it is breathing space. If it were my only source of narrative fulfilment, I'd be deeply unhappy. I need the persistent nourishment of quality, challenging narrative. But for that moment, for that space, it is soul food. So, perhaps my never-asked question to Will Self should be, just like a Masterchef sometimes craves the simplicity of beans on toast, is there a beans on toast narrative that Will Self would choose, and if so, under what circumstances?

I got my copy of Umbrella signed after the event and started reading it on the train back up north. I'm enjoying it very much. I recommend seeking out Self at a reading or event, he's engaging and dynamic and it was an enjoyable event. Just be sure to leave your camera at home.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Sleeping out for the Birchwood Centre

You know when someone has a bright sparky fundraising idea, and you agree to join in because it feels like so long away...

A while ago, a group of us decided to raise money for a fantastic local charity, The Birchwood Centre, where young people who find themselves homeless can go for accommodation, support, mediation, personal development and training. Brilliant stuff. We wanted to support what they do financially and also raise awareness of homelessness issues.

Homelessness is often a hidden problem. Young people sofa surf, moving from place to place; it becomes a difficult cycle to break. So we decided to sleep rough in our village for the night not only because it seemed to fit the cause we were raising for, but also because we hoped it might be a visible way of highlighting this problem.

Clearly, our experience will not be comparable in any way with a young person who actually finds themselves on the street. We have warm sleeping bags. We have access to safe toilet facilities and a community police officer dropping by to make sure we're okay and crucially we're only do it for one night. When it's over, we'll go home, take a shower and get on with our lives.

So I commit to remembering young people who deal with this every day. I hope what we'll be doing will raise useful funds, and also help to raise awareness of this problem. If you fancy sponsoring us, please do drop by our Just Giving page. (and please wish good weather for us tonight...!)

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Edge Hill Short Story Prize... One day to go!

I've feasted my way through a lot of the longlist, and all of the shortlist... tomorrow is the big day. 

The Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2013 winner will be announced and presented at the awards ceremony tomorrow in London.

The impressive longlist was whittled down to a shortlist of six exceptional short story collections:

 - Kevin Barry  Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape)
- Emma Donoghue  Astray (Pan Macmillan)
- Adam Marek  The Stone Thrower (Comma Press)
- John McGregor  This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You (Bloomsbury)
- Jane Rogers  Hitting Trees With Sticks (Comma Press)
- Lucy Woods  Diving Belles (Bloomsbury)

These are all accomplished collections, and I massively admire all the writers' work. For each collection there are at least two or three stories which have lodged and keep returning to me. I think that's one indicator of a strong collection. I wish them all the best of luck at the awards tomorrow. I'm looking forward to finding out who has won the main prize and who has been awarded the Readers' Choice award and hearing their specific reasons for their choices. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

I'm feeling irked.

A particular organisation, one I respect and support, is advertising a position for a creative writer to spend several hours a week facilitating creative writing workshops for a total of twelve weeks.

Which all sounds great until you realise there is no payment offered for this.

I wonder in what other sector or profession would this happen. Are writers supposed to feel so grateful and flattered by organisations asking them in that they won't need or expect any actual payment for their work, skill and time? Fair play (perhaps) if it was a one-off... but twelve weeks? Really?

I love facilitating workshops. And this particular series of sessions sounds right up my street. But on principle, I won't apply. Firstly, I need to use my working hours in ways that will earn me money (a girl has gotta eat). Secondly, if I applied, it would be like conceding that organisations making these requests are rightly entitled to do so. Applying would devalue creatives across the board; writers, poets, musicians, artists... it would be pricing us all down and out of our own market. I question whether they would ask a solicitor or an accountant to work for nothing. Yet somehow, it is seen as acceptable to ask creative industry practitioners to work on extended projects for no money. What I'm really irked about is that this is not an unusual request.

There are certain situations when I am delighted to offer my skills (either workshop leading or writing commissions) for no or a lower fee. This would be at my discretion, if the work was a one off, perhaps an organisation that has very limited money or access to grants and funding. Or a unique opportunity or work placement that is too important to pass up.

But sometimes, like in this instance, it just feels exploitative.

Rant over.

Still feeling a bit irked, though...

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

This is me reading an extract of my story 'All About You' on Youtube, from forthcoming anthology About You (Comma Press, 2013). 

The video was made by Comma Press and LiteratureNorthwest. I was so pleased to be invited to do a reading (although watching myself on video makes me cringe inwardly and belatedly, instinctively try to fix my hair.)

Lots more readings by a fantastic range of writers and poets, recorded by Comma Press and LiteratureNorthwest, can be found here. It is like a supersized chocolate selection box (think high end luxury brand). There are loads of literary delights to sample, names you may recognise and know you'll enjoy and others that might be a bit less familiar; a chance (at the risk of stretching a simile to breaking point) to try a new flavour. 

My own favourite readings so far? Probably Michelle Green reading 'Debrief' from forthcoming collection Jebel Marra (Comma Press, 2013) and Rodge Glass reading 'Orientation #3' from forthcoming title LoveSexTravelMusik (Freight Books, 2013).

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Reducing the Death Count

I just submitted a story that I've been working on for weeks. I have no idea if it's any good or not and will only know if a) the person I've submitted it to says they like it or b) I squirrel it away on the laptop and revisit it nervously in the future. It's a bit of a thoughtful one... a puzzle that doesn't just unravel for the reader; it needs a bit of mental tweaking to get to the heart of it. I like stories that require a tweak to fully reveal themselves.

But I also like stories that fall beautifully open in your hands like an advert-ready Terry's Chocolate Orange. I've been working concurrently on one of those. They are a delightful treat to write, and read. It is for Woman's Weekly who are an utter joy to work with. This type of story is not easy to write - it has to feel true, has to have sincerity, depth and a heart that the reader will relate to, but must be accessible at their point of need. Reading the magazine is their indulgence, perhaps the small portion of time they have carved out of a busy week to relax. Or the five minutes grabbed between meetings / appointments / life demands... so it has to deliver big. I love this challenge.

BUT. Both these stories have a bit of a high death count. Dead mother, dead baby, dead hamster (again), dead girl... The bodies are stacking up. And most of the stories I've written in the last few months seem to have some death element in them. I blame my subconscious mind.

So, my challenge for next week is to write something that has no dead people in it. Only living souls allowed. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Fresh Air

I don't like to be innapropriately personal. I shudder slightly at the vulnerability in the status updates some people feel inspired to write; like bait waggling to social media sharks.

But I do feel I want to share this, not angling for sympathetic comments, but to mark the end of a silence in my writing.

It's been a tough year. And it has been a particularly tough three months. My dad passed away at the beginning of January after a long illness. He wasn't that old. So it wasn't a particularly good innings. There are the repeated phrases. People say things like 'I'm sorry you lost my dad'. It sound trite, like he wandered off in Tescos or he slipped unnoticed down the back of the sofa or something. Death really does inspire some peculiar words and deeds...  You'll know the kind of thing I mean.

But it also shows you who really is there for you when it hits the fan. I am incredibly lucky to have amazing friends, who seem to know the right thing to ask and say, and where to leave pans of sustaining vegetable broth / fish pie... where I will find them at just the point of need. I also have an incredible husband. I wouldn't have managed without him.

This is going to sound whingy - sorry. But I haven't been able to write properly for about 6 months, and I haven't written anything for about two. This isn't because of emotional turmoil, or grief (I'm a bit cynical about writer's block - just get on with it.) I just logistically haven't had time. If you are in a position to be able to drop everything to help out, you do, don't you? And I'm really glad and lucky that I could. I know not everyone has that luxury.

But I didn't realise 'not writing' had affected me so badly until in the pub the other evening Mr S asked gently about it. I've come to appreciate 'not writing' makes me very unhappy. I feel like a part of me is clawing to get out, make itself heard.

And so here I am, immensely glad I've been able to spend time with my family and see dad off with dignity, pleased I will still be able to support and help as needed. But it feels like fresh air to be back sitting at my laptop with my notebook open beside me.

I'm full of ideas. It's going to be a great year.