Saturday, 6 December 2014

BBC Radio 4 Open Book

Following the release of the Beta Life anthology a couple of weeks ago, Martyn Amos and I were invited to BBC Radio 4 to be interviewed by Mariella Frostrup for Open Book. It was an interesting experience... luckily prerecorded... which meant my faltering answers were cut down to something that sounded sensible.

The interview played out on Radio 4 on Sunday, and then repeated on Thursday. It was an immense privilege, albeit a terrifying one, doing the interview. And a special kind of nervous when part of my story, The Bactogarden, was read out on the programme. To have a story (well... an extract from one) read on Radio 4 realised one of my writing dreams. I feel proud and very lucky to have been involved in this Comma Press project with so many fantastic writers and scientist consultants.

The interview can be heard here.

PS. For more Radio 4 loveliness, here is a link to a short story series I enjoyed recently, Short Rides in Fast Machines; brilliant short stories commissioned by Sweet Talk Productions from three of the best - Toby Litt, Adam Marek and Tania Hershman.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

This week the Comma Press Short Story course begins. The course is hosted by Madlab, an organisation coordinating a fantastic schedule of events and activities, all centred around technical and creative innovation and invention. I am thrilled to be leading the writing course this time. I'm particularly looking forward to meeting the course participants, and beginning the process of writing and learning together - exploring the brilliant, diverse and exciting things short stories can do.

One of the most challenging parts of the course preparation so far has been creating the reading list. During sessions we will study several short stories from the masters (contemporary and classic) - examples to help us develop our own narrative structures, character, voice...  But how do you reduce all the incredible, jewel-like examples out there to a reading list of just twelve stories? And how do you overcome the temptation of personal favourites in pursuit of balance and variety? (At one point, my list featured three (three!) Hilary Mantel stories...)

After much agonising and coffee, and a bit of guidance from Comma Editor Ra Page, I just about got there. And I'm really looking forward to exploring some fantastic work by writers including Hemingway, Conan Doyle, Carver, Joyce, Mansfield, Adam Marek... (and I still sneaked a Mantel on there!) with the group. But casting out so many amazing stories was painful so I am hoping we can compile a working list of go-to short stories that course participants will add to as well with their long term favourites and also stories they discover and fall in love with along the creative journey.

But more than reading, I'm excited to begin the writing process with the group - seeing what stories we bring; creating unexpected narratives, pushing ourselves to try something new and sharpening our writing skills together.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Beta-Life Launch Week

This week Comma Press launches its latest anthology of science into fiction. Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life Future is a collection of stories written by authors collaborating with scientist consultants in leading research areas of artificial life, future technology and unconventional computing. All the stories in the collection are set in or around 2070.  I was delighted to contribute a story, 'The Bactogarden', working closely with my fantastic consultant Prof. Martyn Amos.

Now I finally have my hands on a copy, it is fascinating to see how other writers have taken on the project, particularly their perception of the world in 2070. It is intriguing how certain things recur in the stories (quinoa, video walls, climate refugees...) Perhaps we've all been watching the same SF/ futuristic films or have somehow synchronised our google research paths. But predicting the future and keeping it in hand through a narrative was something I found delightfully challenging with this project. Perhaps that is why I particularly admire Martyn Bedford's story, 'The Sayer of the Sooth' which not only creates a very convincing portrayal of the world in 2070, but also riffs against it in a self-aware primary narrative, the story effectively folding back on itself. It is hugely inventive, without compromising the grit of the central story. I also love Claire Dean's story 'Making Sandcastles' which explores human issues around personal fabricating technology, and Zoe Lambert's story 'Keynote' which deals with collective consciousness. Adam Marek's story 'Growing Skyscrapers' is another of my favourites so far in the collection, imagining a world where high rise buildings are grown organically, like trees.

At times during this process, trying to imagine the world in 60 years time has left me blundering dangerously close to something that resembled the Jetsons, and eventually coming to the conclusion, with the brilliant editorial support of Ra Page and consultant Martyn Amos, that in many ways things won't be that different to now; ultimately humans are humans are humans... regardless of location, situation, technology advances or time frame. We have the same motivations, desires and drives. Predicting what the future looks like is tricky. I recently remembered an episode of that dire 70's sitcom Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em where Frank and Betty are staying in a futuristic house belonging to Betty's brother. It's all sliding doors, retracting TV screens and hammy rotating storage. Predictably, with Frank around, chaos ensues. The technological advances were, clearly, less predictable - and laughable now. In 2070, I will be 90 years old. I wonder if I will look back on the stories in the Beta-Life collection in my old age and smile to myself about the bits we got so right, and perhaps others that were a little shy of the mark. Although in reading the admirable stories from other writers in this collection, I am even more convinced that it is less about trying to make wholesale predictions about the future and so much more about dreaming the possibilities within a solid grounding of scientific truth.

Beta-Life launched as part of the Manchester Science Festival. See here for more details.

See here to purchase a copy of Beta-Life.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Short Review: Unthology 5

My review of Unthology 5 went up onto The Short Review website this week - a brilliant site dedicated exclusively to the short story.

I am enthusiastic about the Unthology collections that have come before but I particularly admire this fifth collection. It was a pleasure to read and a delight to delve into for reviewing purposes.

“What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story” (F Scott Fitzgerald). This is a truth reflected in many of the stories in this glittering collection. Several revolve around the moment at which the secret thought, the thing a character most wants to conceal, bleeds out into the world. Underneath the layers, we glimpse the raw, challenging or uncomfortably familiar. And how delicious it is to know the secret thoughts of others...

Read the full review here.

Unthank Books, responsible for the Unthology series, are already preparing the next anthology of work. Read here for more about what they do, and submission guidelines.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Litfest 2014

Now in its 36th year, Lancaster Litfest holds the annual literature festival hosting events that 'introduce, intrigue, challenge and entertain'. It's always brill.

This year I'm delighted to be taking part in an event with Claire Dean and Prof Martyn Amos for the new Comma Press anthology Beta Life: Stories from an A-Life Future. It has been an exciting project to contribute a story to and includes stories from a host of writers I admire hugely. Each one is developed and provided with an afterword from leading scientist consultants such as Prof Amos.

I will also be in the audience for as many Litfest events as possible. A while ago, a writer friend of mine put me onto Bernard MacLaverty's short fiction. He is a fantastic writer and so I am delighted that he is doing a reading at Litfest this year and also running a workshop. I've signed up for the workshop - hearing writers talk about their process is gold dust.

My other highlights - Jenn Ashworth who will be talking about her work - both short stories and novels and The Book Of Gaza event. The anthology, from Comma Press is a collection of short fiction from writers with personal knowledge and understanding of everyday life in Gaza; an incredible insight beyond the narrow images seen on the news. See here for a full listing of Litfest events.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Good Mentor Health

I've said it before, I'll say it again; the WoMentoring Project is a brilliant thing. I am delighted that I applied for a mentor through this initiative. When I saw the list of incredible writers, editors and agents (all women) offering their skills and expertise as mentors to emerging women writers, I knew immediately who I wanted to apply to. Tania Hershman is a writer I admire hugely. She is also an expert on flash fiction which is an area I want to develop and improve in my own work. Plus, Tania writes a lot of stories that fuse science and fiction which is something I love and want to do more of. I was so delighted when she agreed to take me on as a mentee. It is all still very new, but already Tania has done so much to help and encourage me with resources, a fantastic collection of short story inspiration and, probably most valuably, permission... to stretch out, dream, try something new in my work. I have written two new pieces already with my head in a very different space. It is invigorating and so exciting. I'm lucky to have such a tremendous mentor. And I can't rave about the WoMentoring Project enough. A brilliant endeavour that I've been signposting to all my female writer friends.

And finally, Mr S and I have a holiday coming up, so this week I compiled my holiday reading list which for me trumps any other sort of holiday prep! This year's mix includes two recently-dead authors, three novels I've been meaning to read for ages, a bit of SF, a classic or two, a book I was given as a gift that I'm a tiny bit sceptical about but will probably hugely enjoy and a delicious delicious Sophie Hannah novel (that I will probs have finished by the time we land in Spain). I thank the Lord that Mr S has a Kindle so in terms of baggage allowance, he can take a bit of a hit with holiday library.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Looking after my future self

On an impulse between deadlines and work obligations, I dashed out for a swim the other day. I used to swim every week, but haven't gone for a while. I just grabbed the opportunity and my swimming bag and went. After thirty lengths, I had just enough time to wash my hair before heading on to the rest of a busy day. In the shower, I delved into my bag to find my shampoo bottle... empty. A tiny and very first world problem, I know. But an inconvenience, a small stress added to a number of small frustrations that day. Cumulatively it was the last thing I needed. Feeling (disproportionately) put out I slammed the bottle back in my bag and found, to my delight and surprise, a new full shampoo that I have no memory of buying or putting in there. Sincerely, I have no memory of this.

This is such a tiny insignificant thing. The smallest of small issues. But I really value this idea that I'd looked after my future self. At some point in history, I'd had the forethought to imagine my future needs and supply a solution. Nothing life transformingly forward thinking like writing a will, or organising life insurance, or flossing. It was something very tiny, but tender.

Generally speaking, I'm quite good at being kind to others. I really like listening to people when they need to talk something through. I try to be a good friend - text or ring when people need support. I enjoy encouraging people, spotting what they're good at and being positive about it. But I'm often not very good at this with myself. If I thought about other people the way I think about myself, I would consider myself a pretty horrible person. I don't regard myself very kindly. I berate myself a lot. I tend to pull apart things I've done, looking for the mistakes, rather than what went well. I agonise over stuff I've said, thought or done that didn't come out right, instead of focussing on the larger percentage that is positive and uplifting. I can be a thoroughly nasty person, when it comes to me. With myself, I'm often not very kind or thoughtful.

I  know I'm not the only one. Perhaps this berating of self resonates with you. If it doesn't and you find it easy to be kind to yourself, I'd love to know how to do it. I think this is why the shampoo-in-swimming-bag touched me deeply. it was a cherishing, thoughtful act to myself - my future self. A tiny but loving act of kindness, that I'd forgotten all about.

So, in a resolve to continue this, today I've written a kind letter to myself a year in the future, via FutureMe. Through this website, you can write a letter to yourself at some date in the future and it will be forwarded to you then. You can make it private (I did!) or anonymously public. There are some touching and intriguing ones up there on the website to read. In my letter I was encouraging, supportive and mindful of where I might be in 12 months time. I'm hoping when I get it I will have forgotten I sent it, a bit like finding a full bottle of shampoo on a busy day when I thought I'd run out. A kind and surprising message in a bottle.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

A Review: A Song For Issy Bradley

This book may challenge the way you think about faith. It will also make you laugh and cry - I promise.

Carys Bray's novel A Song For Issy Bradley is the story of a British Mormon family in the aftermath of the death of the youngest child, Issy.

The story is about how each of them journey through grief. The narrative switches between characters; Issy's parents, Claire and Ian, and her siblings, Alma, Zipporah and Jacob, take turns unfolding the family's story. Every character sees things in a different way. Every voice matters. For Claire it is a paralysing experience that sends her into catatonic shock; a passive rebellion against faith. For the youngest family member, Jacob, negotiating the familiar (if amplified) confusion of stories we're told as children; God, Father Christmas, spirit beings and the tooth fairy, his response is to hatch a plan to resurrect Issy.

However, this isn't a novel all about death. It is a book about family; the dynamics, struggles and joys of being part of one. It is also about the challenge to make sense of the things that can, and do, happen to us all. Bray has this incredible knack of seeing the details that count. You smile at the familiar moments; Ian's desperation to be the figurehead, holding everything together, Teenage daughter Zippy's first love and the fantasies of what it is to be grown up, Alma's rebellion against the family obligations that take him away from his football.

The multiple viewpoint structure is the perfect way to tell their story. I don't always think it is helpful to compare books to other books... but I can't help mentioning that it reminded me strongly of The Poisonwood Bible in the sense that it takes an incredibly accomplished writer, like Kingsolver, like Bray, to handle a range of divergent voices so exactingly. You can open any page, read a line of text and know with absolute certainty whose narrative you are in, purely because of the voice. This brilliant handling allows the reader to get beneath the skin of the characters and feel what they feel acutely. You will probably grapple over who is your favourite character. They are superbly drawn and I'm fond of them all for different reasons. I feel like I might bump into Jacob at the penny arcade at the end of Southport pier, or Zippy trying lip glosses in Beales. I would recognise each of them anywhere.

It could have been tempting for Bray, who was brought up in a Mormon family, before leaving in her thirties, to have made this novel a vehicle to ridicule the Mormon church and faith. A less skilled writer may have gone that way, as a cheap trick. What is going on here is far more nuanced. Bray presents aspects of the faith that may make us feel queasily outraged - particularly the treatment of women, the teaching of sex and sexuality and the legalistic doctrine. But Bray is even-handed and also depicts details of Mormonism with great dignity and gentle affection; the kindness and support shown from the community, the culture around sharing food and eating. It is funny. It is life affirming. There is the reality of a living faith in characters like Brother Rimmer. There is measure and balance sustained through to the last page. There is shade and subtlety to the writing that I admire hugely.

This is a beautifully written novel. Tender without being mawkish; real, sincere, brutal and also uplifting. An incredible debut.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Gifted Children

This month I have an assortment of children's birthdays to attend and source gifts for. I don't have any children. But I'm blessed with lots of lovely friends who do. This is awesome until it comes to birthdays/Christmas/baptisms etc. when I'm faced with the dilemma of what the hell to buy for them.

I LOVE giving presents. This isn't the issue. The dilemma I face is twofold. Firstly, I have no innate gauge for age appropriateness of gifts for little humans. Some shops helpfully label toys with ages, but often I look at them and think they're underestimating how advanced all my awesome little pals are. I won't give a gift that makes them feel talked down to or patronised. (Although I did recently give a Mr Grasshead, labelled age 3+, to a friend in her mid twenties because I secretly wanted it for myself and I hoped she would appreciate it, too.)

The second problem is that I know a lot of my friends' children are already overwhelmed with toys. Brightly coloured plastic stuff seems to be breeding in every storage container of their homes. The parents tell me it's getting out of hand but you really can't rock up to a kid's birthday party armed only with a card. That would be hugely disappointing.

So a while ago I made a decision. Unless children have specific gift requests, from now onwards, everyone's getting books. It means I get to spend lovely purposeful time in bookshops picking what I hope will be a much enjoyed story and something to instil an early love of reading.

But first, let me release a bit of a bee from my book-buying bonnet and clarify what I Will Never Buy. It deeply saddens me when bookshops and publishers sell/ do this sort of thing:

I mean, come on... look at them?! 'Nuff said.

So what do I make a beeline for?  I love children's books that make me properly laugh. Why shouldn't children get to enjoy dry, clever humour from an early age.... along with the adult reading it with them. Elys Dolan's brilliant, award winning book Weasels made me actually lol in the shop. I bought multiple copies. Her superb illustrations and witty storytelling are fabulous.

I also really like books that don't shy away from difficult emotions, too, such as The Storm Whale by Benji Davies, which has also won awards. The story is about a young boy who finds a baby whale washed up on a beach near his home and  keeps it in his bathtub for company. With its gorgeous narrative and perfect illustrations it is an absolute beauty. A lovely story, but also helpful in exploring issues of loneliness, love and friendship with children.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Edge Hill Prize short list announced

The short list for the Edge Hill Prize was announced today. The five finalists are:

John Burnside, Something Like Happy (Jonathan Cape)
Jaki McCarrick, The Scattering (Seren Books)
Bernie McGill, Sleepwalkers (Wittrick Press)
David Rose, Posthumous Stories (Salt)
Rachel Trezise, Cosmic Latte (Parthian)

Five outstanding and varied collections from writers I hugely admire. The overall winner will be announced at an awards ceremony on 3rd July.

For more information about the Edge Hill Prize and the finalists see here.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The WoMentoring Project

Women writers take note. The WoMentoring Project is an amazing initiative set up by author Kerry Hudson, connecting brilliant women within the literary industry; editors, agents and writers across all genres, with aspiring women writers through mentoring.

The application process is really straightforward and there are so many incredible people who are offering their time, talents and guidance for free. You choose who you would love to have as a mentor, send a sample of writing and a short statement about why you would benefit from free mentoring and they forward the applications to the mentors to select from. Brilliant.

I will be applying for this. To receive mentoring from an experienced writer is gold dust - too good an opportunity to miss!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Edge Hill Prize long list announced...

The long list for the Edge Hill Prize, recognising excellence in published short story collections, has been announced. 

The prize this year has attracted a diversity of talent. From well established names and publishers, to early career writers and smaller, independent presses. See the full long list on the Edge Hill University website.

Staff and post graduate students at Edge Hill are taking part in the shortlisting process. It's a privilege for me to be involved in this as a member of the Narrative Research Group at the university. I'm delighted to be reading entries from writers whose previous work I know and love and also discovering real gems amongst newer voices.

The shortlist will be announced in May.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Synthetic Biology: Here Be Monsters?

Over the last few weeks I've been working on a story commission from Comma Press, in conjunction with TRUCE.

The project focuses on A-Life future and unconventional computing. As with previous science-into-fiction projects, writers and scientific consultants are partnered up and they chat in person or online about a particular area of research. The writer asks (in my case embarrassingly naive) questions and from these conversations the writer draws together a fictional narrative, this time set in 2070, using and exploring the particular area of research as a metaphor, axis or catalyst for the story. The science is checked by the consultant to ensure that it is grounded in fact and they then write an afterword to accompany the story. It is an utterly delightful collaborative process.

The area within this project that I chose is synthetic biology. If you look on the internet for information about the latest developments in synthetic biology, you come up with a jumble of some well written, if sometimes overly simplified, newspaper articles about particular cases, reams of comments on posts often about how the world will probably grind to a halt unless we revert back to all things 'natural' and a lot of very speculative information and spectacular images. Picture a Victorian freakshow of Frankenstein monstrosities for a future generation and that's pretty much the scene.

There's a big divide between the science fact and the understanding of the general public. Sometimes, in abbreviation or in an attempt to add jeopardy or dynamism into a report, the science breakthroughs within synthetic biology can be twisted into something very peculiar - a far cry from the actual science fact. Occasionally, the science world isn't a great communicator - perhaps because of valid fears that truth, shared, will be trampled in pursuit of edgy copy. Making the science fact clear and true but in an accessible, engaging way to the layperson is really tricky. For this project, and those that have come before it, in When it Changed, Litmus, Biopunk and Sara Maitland's Moss Witch, Comma Press has rounded up scientist consultants who are not only at the very coalface of these scientific areas, but who are also brilliant communicators, with both the writers involved, and also the general public.

It's a marvellous project to be involved with but also terrifying. I have researched widely, visualising what the world, and indeed synthetic biology, will look like in 2070 and now I'm attempting to pull a narrative from these threads. It keeps me awake at night. The current world seems very antiquated when I blearily raise my head out of the story to look around.

My science collaborator Professor Martyn Amos is a brilliant communicator, and really good at answering my stupid, occasionally left field, questions. We've got some big ideas to play with in the field of synthetic biology. The difficulty is trying to select which bits to focus on, so that the story becomes something narrow and deep and not a synbio monster. We both agreed, early on in the process, that while synthetic biology will be the driving science subject in the story, neither of us wanted to portray it in a doom ridden apocalyptic way.  It felt more interesting to address how it will improve our lives, and within this what the inevitable downsides, or psychological effect of it will be. How will it impact our relationships with each other? How will it change the way we see the world? These questions seem more pertinent and engaging.

 It is a privilege to be working with Martyn and I'm really looking forward to the Beta -Life event in Edinburgh with Comma Press, Martyn and writer Robin Yassin-Kassab next month.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Being Mslexic

I've been a huge fan of Mslexia since I first subscribed as an undergraduate. Mslexia, 'For women who write', has been a source of inspiration, encouragement and joy throughout my writing journey. So it was delightful to be asked to make a small contribution for a feature in the latest issue.

Katie M Anderson, a fantastic writer, trainer and consultant, composed the feature about life after completing a creative writing MA and asked several writers, including myself, about our experiences of our writing-life post MA. It was a huge privilege to be asked. The article is great - detailing anecdotal response and also hard facts about how many writers go on to publish work after finishing a creative writing MA.

It is an encouraging read, especially given the recent resurrection of the debate of the value of the creative writing MA. Read more about Katie's article here, on her blog, and find out more about Mslexia here. Thank you, Katie for the brilliant article, and to Mslexia for producing a cracking publication.

Friday, 28 February 2014


I'm a bit obsessive about detail. When I'm writing a story, I don't like to get factual details wrong. I will spend a lot of time on the internet while writing a story just ensuring that the things I'm putting into it are correct. It is terrible for a procrastinator like me because sometimes pursuing the correct detail (what colour exactly is a bar of Lifebouy soap? Precisely how long does it take to taxidermy a hamster? Can you buy top loading washing machines for doll's houses? When was the whetstone invented? Did people in 1917 have an awareness of natural satellites?) can lead you into the most fascinating tunnel of distractions and you find yourself an hour later a million miles away from the original small query.

Often the internet or reference books cannot readily and reliably answer your detail query. I have been writing a story set in 1917, in Arras on the front line. I managed to put together the bones of the story using the facts from a selection of books, archives, websites and general reading. But I had got to the point where I was reading through my complete story feeling a little anxious about fine detail. You hope people will read the story. You hope people will be absorbed by the tale and not trip over inaccuracies. You hope you haven't blundered rough shod over the truths of history and that you've been respectful to the real life event in the construction of your fiction. But with this story I've found the precision of certain detail hard to nail down.

I am really lucky to know an amazing writer who specialises in military history who was able to help me. Bryan Perrett has been writing historical fiction and non fiction for years. His work covers a wide range of military and naval warfare. If you have children, they will have read his books, in the Scholastic 'My Story' series, where specific historical events are told through the eyes of a young person. Bryan is brilliant at making history accessible, understandable, but most of all alive and very engaging.

We spent a lovely morning going through my story. Bryan highlighted historical inaccuracies and was able to add detail that I would never have thought about. I realised how even the most careful of internet research can let you down - I'd spent ages trying to pin down what sort of helmet soldiers in 1917 would wear, and I'd confidently called it a Brodie. This was not only wrong, but the character in my story, at rest in a trench dugout, would in fact be wearing his balaclava not his helmet (which would more often than not be placed protectively in his lap during rest periods.) And who knew that shells make a noise like tearing fabric... I'd sort of assumed it would be a whistling sound. It's the kind of detail that begins to capture a visceral reality. Bryan was able to help me with so many detailed points from army commands to war time church etiquette.

We spoke about prescience, too; an uncanny and surprisingly common phenomenon where people going into battle often have a particular sense when they will not make it back and remark upon it.

Many thanks to Bryan, for being such a brilliant historical consultant, for sharing my excitement in the story and for the sort of attention to detail that I love. And to all experts who help us writers with getting the details right and keeping things authentic.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Beta-Life: Short Stories From an A-Life Future

At the moment I'm working on a story for the Comma Press Beta-Life project, in conjunction with TRUCE. I've been invited to do a short reading at Edinburgh Science Festival 2014. I will write more about the Beta-Life project, and how it works, soon.

For now, suffice to say I'm so delighted to be involved with this fascinating project. And it's a great privilege to be part of this Edinburgh Science Festival event with Comma Press editor Ra Page, Professor Martyn Amos and writer Robin Yassin-Kassab; all of whom I admire hugely.

If you find yourself in Edinburgh this April, do see the website for details of all the fantastic events happening over the course of the festival.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

...from the master of suspense...

This week, I read this. It is trashy and brilliant and lush. It is the antidote to heavy high brow lit. Yet, because it's old (dated Feb 1973) and has Alfred Hitchcock's blessing, it feels vintage and worthwhile.

I bought this in a bookshop in Porto Alegre in Brazil when we travelled through a couple of years ago. It was a heady combination of an impulse purchase. I love Hitchcock, films, biog... all associated links, I was desperately thirsty for all/any reading material (I'd even sunk to the desperate depths of swapping a book I'd read for the only English title in a hostel in Sao Paulo; Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons which I destroyed after reading - horrible, hateful, lazily written, nasty, self-absorbed, sexist, vile novel that it is) And I have a massive crush on anything mid century.. so this just ticked a lot of boxes. I didn't actually get round to reading it all at the time (found a copy of brilliant Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible) - but managed to secret squirrel Hitch away in my rucksack and bring it back home where it belonged. It is pure pulp fiction. And I love it.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Breece D'J Pancake

On my reading list this week.... 'The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake'.

I cannot recommend this brief and breathtaking collection highly enough. Breece D'J Pancake's life was short and tragic - (this collection comes with a brilliant foreword by James Alan McPherson and afterword by John Casey) he killed himself when he was 26 and, although some of his stories were published in The Atlantic magazine, his work was only compiled into a published collection posthumously. Most of his stories are set in West Virginia where he grew up. It is very difficult to believe he was only in his twenties - the stories resonate with a timeless knowledge, of humanness, failing and the kind of obsession with heritage you rarely see in younger writers' work. He also grasps the land and the people working it, the landscape, the pastimes and existence of those in his stories with such a perceptive eye, it is as if he has drunk it in, held it, then poured it perfectly onto the page. It looks effortless but it isn't. This deceit, I believe, is what makes the best writers - where it reads like an image you are seeing with your own eyes and the writer sort of disappears. It is bloody hard to do, although its seamlessness makes it look easy. IMO, this is how David Constantine writes. This is how Hilary Mantel and Kevin Barry write.

Now, immediately after reading, my favourite stories are 'The Salvation of Me', for its classical story structure, 'First Day of Winter', because he does an awful lot in a very short space of time, and 'The Mark' because it is especially dark and challenging. But I wonder if after a month or so, if I go back and take another look, other stories will resonate with me, for the time served with them brewing. Pancake switches between character perspectives all the time; sometimes mid paragraph, occasionally mid sentence. This would normally get my goat - lift me out of the story, into edit mode. But not with him. When you have a grasp like Pancake's, then you can really do whatever the hell you want.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Just Right...

So this week I finally got round to buying a proper office chair for me to sit on. I know! Exciting And Noteworthy.

My 'office' is actually the dining room. We do have a little room in our house called the office. It is upstairs and it is full of my lovely husband's stuff for work he needs to do at home (he's a teacher - I will punch the face of anyone who claims teachers have it easy - I can testify to the fact Mr S works for hours after the school day 'finishes' and every weekend, too.) So the actually office is really his territory. Besides, it is the room in which we keep our corn snake, Geoff and much as I love him, I don't really want to spend that much time in close proximity. I also have a weird aversion to working upstairs. It just feels all wrong. Perhaps because it's too far from the kettle.

So over the years I've carved out my working space at the dining table and I don't know why I've persisted for so many years to sit at the dining table aka, my desk, on a dining chair. I've always had neck and back problems, and I'm certain this will just have made it worse.

So I went to Ikea and, feeling a bit like Goldilocks, tried all of the chairs until I found the one that was Just Right. I love it. It is swivelly and on casters. And has a lever to make it go up and down. When I lean back, I don't feel like I'm going to misplace a vertebrae anymore and my desk looks more... well, like a desk and less like a dining table with a laptop on it. All good. The black thing at the bottom of the photograph is also new - a tilting footrest - if, like me, you are vertically challenged, I highly recommend getting one, too. Your (unthrombosed) leg veins will thank you for it.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Drunk octopus fixing for a fight? 
Is this a metal double-hooked hanger? Or is it a drunk octopus looking for a fight?

Humans are suckers for perceiving the most non human objects as having humanistic attributes. Currently, I'm researching anthropomorphism: the tendency to attribute real or imagined behaviour of non human objects or animals with humanlike characteristics. This hook is a good example because not only do we see the object as resembling an animal, the octopus with its fairly easily attributed head shape and tentacles, our cognition also takes in the screws and position of the metal adding another layer  and assimilating it with human traits of drunkenness and aggression. It's a massively intriguing and hugely broad area to research and as yet I am just chipping at the very tip of the iceberg. My hope, once I've got to grips with it - researched some of the reasons behind our tendency to anthropomorphise and in what circumstances - is to write a complete collection of short stories exploring these ideas. The subject reaches out in so many directions, encompassing our interactions with animals, objects, deities, technology and robotics. It is fascinating stuff.

As well as the academic side of research I'm also seeking strong examples from other writers using anthropomorphism in their stories. At the moment, I'm reading The Snow Child (Headline, 2012) by Eowyn Ivey, about a little girl who mysteriously appears the day after a childless Alaskan couple build a snow girl in their backyard. It's a really good example and beautifully handled, especially in reference to folklore and intertextual understanding of other similar narratives. But, at times, it feels a little slow and I wonder whether it would have benefitted from a hearty edit.

This week's appointed short story reading is Carys Davies' Some New Ambush (Salt, 2007), which I suppose is a bit of a cheat, since I've read it already, albeit quite a long time ago. But it's a cracker of a short story collection, so definitely deserves a reread. There are two or three stories in it which particularly strike me as having something anthropomorphic about them. 'Boot', is the story of a dog who has become too assertive within a family dynamic and needs to be taken "firmly, properly in hand." The narrator says people tell her and her husband, Ian, that "I had confused him and misled him into thinking he was important... I had misled Boot into thinking he was Ian." Another good example is 'In Skokie' which, with admirable brevity, tells of a stolen car. The distraught husband, Myron, goes around "taping up posters, the way people do when they have lost a cat or a child." The narrator leans differently, but equally, anthropomorphically towards the vehicle: "I keep thinking about that old Chevrolet, slouching down the street... taking in the sights... Myron's car, making a break for it." Brilliant stuff. There's also a slag heap in 'The Pied Piper' that to me seems to have anthropomorphic qualities; "people said they could hear [it] groaning and shifting in the night, as if it were trying to get comfortable."

Finally, if you enjoyed the drunk octopus, there is a whole website of delightfully silly household/non human objects with a humanistic appearance here. You can even submit your own, should you spot any.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

New Year... onto a healthy regime...

Forget weirdy diets and a gym membership. This year my healthy resolve is all about putting quality fiction into my system. Specifically short fiction. Obvs. I read lots of it already - you really (really) can't write fiction without reading fiction. But my aim is to be more deliberate about this. Putting reading at the centre of each day, rather than the periphery; making time specifically for it, forsaking all others, rather than snatching precious moments between other tasks.

First on my reading list is Best British Short stories 2013 (Ed. Nicholas Royle, Salt, 2013). Every year, I put the latest edition in this series on my Christmas list. I adore them and find myself returning to the collections often for reference and recommending stories out of them.

This one lives up to my expectations. Particular favourite stories are Alison Moore's 'The Smell of the Slaughterhouse' for its beautiful spare handling of a difficult topic, particularly for the bravery and skill in telling it with such searing brevity. And Adam Marek's 'Storm Chasers' because I knew something was coming but had no idea what... The ending genuinely startled me - it is a fantastic example of exactly how narrative should work - you won't guess the ending until you come to it, but the ending is so perfectly sympathetic to the story that you can't believe you didn't see it coming. I also particularly like Anneliese Mackintosh's 'Doctors', partly because it showcases perfect use of  second person narration, and also because it manages to fly in the face of my dislike for stories about writing/writers... Often I find writers writing about writers/writing in their stories naval gazingly, self consciously cringy and banal. But Mackintosh handles this story beautifully. (Actually, I probably need to reassess my dislike of stories about writers because now I keep thinking of other examples that I really admire and rise well above this aversion - including Toby Litt's 'Call it "The Bug" because I have no time to think of a better title' from Bio Punk (Comma Press, 2012) and, from BBSS2013 itself, Ellis Sharp's 'The Writer', because they are both in their separate ways experimental and intriguing. Maybe I do like them after all, but only when I feel, as with Mackintosh, Litt and Sharp, that I'm in very safe hands.)

Great collection - with enjoyable breadth and diversity. Much to admire.