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.