Thursday, February 26, 2009

Art and Science!

I mentioned a few weeks ago here that I'd started writing again and that I wrote a flash story for Liars' League's theme of Art and Science. Liars League is a monthly evening in London where actors read out the winning stories on that month's theme. Art and Science... that's so me, I had to go for it. And, as I said then, if I didn't get anywhere, well, I'd have a new flash story.

I got in! They just emailed to say that my story will be performed on March 10th. Whee!! I will be there, we are flying back home on March 11th (yes, I engineered that just in case....this time optimism didn't jinx anything). I would love to see any of you who might be around. Come hear stories on Art and Science, it sounds really fun.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Enquiring Young Minds

I had the most wonderful time yesterday during my visit back to my old school, South Hampstead High School. (On the left is the poster they put up about my upcoming talk).

I wrote to them when I saw they on the school's website that they had a Creative Writing club, something that hadn't been there in my time (a phrase I came to overuse considerably during my visit!). We arranged that I would come during lunch break and talk to a group of 14- and 15-year-old girls (it's an all-girls school) about... well, I decided I would ask them what they wanted to talk about!

I have to admit being a little nervous about how it might be going back to my old school, a place that wasn't chock full of happy memories. But, frankly, either my memory is so bad or the school has changed so radically - I barely recognised a single corner!

I met with Barnaby, the teacher who had set up the meeting, and he took me and the girls into the library where we sat around a table, and lunch - including Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers, what is the education system coming to?? - was brought.

We were joined by more and more pupils as time went on...and after a bit, we decided that instead of eating lunch and moving me to the more formal section of the library, where chairs had been set up for my "talk", I'd just talk here and anyone could ask questions.

They wanted to know how I became a writer, so I told them all the lengthy tale, from age 6 (voracious reader, etc...), through the sidetracked-into-science years from 13 to 23 (A Levels, University degree in Maths and Physics, MSc in Philosophy of Science), science journalism (1994-2007) and the joys of meeting scores of optimistic entrepreneurs and scientists who believed they would change the world, and then the return to fiction, slowly, slowly. Ending up with: the book.

I told them how it was a meeting with a friend of a friend in Jerusalem who had published a number of short stories that showed me that "real" people wrote fiction, it wasn't for some exalted few, who had studied English at University, who knew the right people, et...Meeting him showed me that maybe, maybe, I could do it too.

The night before, I had heard neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield talk at Jewish Book week (blog post coming soon) about her fears for the younger generation that staring at a screen instead of reading books would turn them into thrill-seekers with no regard for the consequences of their actions, instead of "contextual" people who could see connections between events. Well, meeting this wonderful group of pupils certainly disproved that theory. They were thoughtful, attentive, curious, calm. (There was no texting going on, no yawning, no giggling...they assured me they weren't there just because of the free lunch and Chocolate Fingers). They were delightful.

I read them one of the shortest stories from The White Road and Other Stories, Plaits (click on the link for a video of me reading the story), which is a page and a half in length. It goes down well generally, it's a good example of flash fiction. And I was so impressed when they asked me questions about parts of the story, how did I choose certain things. I explained that when I write, it isn't a conscious experience, I am in some kind of "zone" and I do feel it comes through me instead of from me. They asked if I wrote anything else apart from short stories, so I mentioned that I'd adapted two stories into short plays, and that I had an idea for a film script. They asked what my next project was and I said probably it would be a flash fiction collection. But I stressed that what I realised after the book was published was that for me it is all about the writing. As long as I am writing, I'm happy. And that writing is like a muscle - you have to keep it toned, keep it flexible, by writing as much as possible.

At the end, when they really had to go off to History, I was thrilled when several of them asked if they could buy a copy (of course, I'd brought along a few just in case... not sure whether lunch money would stretch that far!). I signed the books for them and they left. Then Eleanor, one of the two librarians (the pic below is of her and Sarah, the other librarian), took me on a tour of the school just to see if there was anything that rang a bell.

Nothing looked that familiar (I don't remember much of my childhood, that's why I like to say I make stuff up), but I was stunned by what the pupils were doing. I did O'Levels, I was one of the last years to do that exam at age 16, and in the classrooms the cry that was most often heard was "Will this be on the exam? Do we need to know this?". How different things are now! GCSEs, AS Levels... Below are the clothes some of the pupils (14-year-olds) made as part of their courses:

The atmosphere at the school was relaxed, creative, stimulating. The teachers had a lovely rapport with the pupils. In my day, from what I do remember, we were always being told off for something, whether it be our behaviour or or clothes (the uniform rules were pretty rigid). We didn't make anything, we weren't given free rein to express ourselves, there was no Creative Writing Club.

And we certainly didn't have writers and artists visiting to talk about the process of creating (novelist Naomi Alderman and poet Danny Abse are just two of the recent visitors). Had I seen at the age of 14 that "real people" can be writers, artists and poets, how might that have changed my life? I don't regret anything I have done over the past 30 years, certainly not studying science, which I love, although I could never be a scientist. But to be shown so many possibilities, so many different ways of being and doing in this world, must open young minds to all that they could be... and more.

I left feeling that I had learned as much from them as they might perhaps have learned from me, and that rather than it being a traumatic return to school, it had been a joyful sharing of creativity and excitement about short stories and writing.

PS That night, back at Jewish Book Week, I found this in the bookshop, run by Foyles, something I never would have dreamt of in my wildest dreams at the age of 14:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Overheard on a London Bus

One of the joys of being in England is that I can eavesdrop without effort, since everyone is speaking my native tongue. I sat on the bus tonight, listening to a young couple behind me.

She was talking, in a lovely Scottish accent, about just how hard she works, how she often gets up before 5am to get to the office, and that she is so invested in her job that she "hasn't read a novel all year".

What a thrill, I thought from the seat in front - someone bemoaning the fact that her life is so busy she hasn't had a chance to read!

But then I was immediately seized by the urge to turn around and say, "What about short stories? You've got time for short stories!" and to thrust a Short Review postcard into her hand.

Luckily, I restrained myself. I remembered that the British - well, Londoners, really - don't expect strangers to butt into their conversations, and that my behaviour might have been seen as a form of insanity. So I said nothing. A missed opportunity? If you're out there, woman from the number 91 to Crouch End, read a short story!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jewish Book Week Day One

I didn't sleep so well last night, and it wasn't because I was nervous about the reading today. It was more that I have so much to say about short stories, I was worried about not being able to say it all! The event was the launch of the Sea of Azov (see earlier post for details), the charity short story anthology. There were four of us reading, Karen Maitland, Michelene Wandor, Tamar Yellin and myself, with biographer Anne Sebba as the moderator.

This is me with Michelene beside me and Anne looking on.

Well, what I learned from my first experience on a panel is how fabulous it is to have a moderator who really knows how to moderate! I guess that is something I was nervous about because it was an unknown quantity: how would we read? How would the talking be organised? Well, I shouldn't have worried, because Anne was fantastic. She introduced us, we each read a taster section of our stories, we talked a little about the particular story, and Anne immediately jumped in to say something she had noticed about each of our stories.

Tamar talked about the importance of a writing space, which is central to her short story; Karen talked about ghosts and memory; Michelene talked about how some people perceive her writing as her expressing moral indignation. I talked about how this story was my experiment in "realism", how I had done it once to please my MA tutor, and how I would never do it again!

Anne then asked us various questions about dialogue, about the writing of stories. She asked me to repeat a comment I had made in the Green Room beforehand about how you'll often hear people say about a novel "Oh, you'll love it. The first 40 pages are a bit slow but get through those and it's great!", but with short stories you don't have 40 pages, you have perhaps one paragraph or a page to hook your reader. And how short stories rarely appear in isolation, they are always competing with other stories, something I am trying to stress to my short story workshop participants - you have to grab your reader and not let go!

Then we fielded a few questions from the very attentive audience, about whether short stories were a particularly Jewish thing, or a particularly female thing (we all thought no on both counts), and whether flash fiction was ideally suited to the 16-25 age group with their short attention spans (I disagreed with this one, thanks Alex!) then, in a flash, it was all over! Down to the Jewish Book Week Bookshop run by Foyles, a bit of signing and some more chats with my fellow writers about writing. I think we will all be keeping in touch, it was great to meet them all.

Thank you so much to Clare G, James, Nick, Jaq, Zeddy, Peter, Marilyn, Irving, Jo, Alex and Esti, Sue G and Elizabeth R-J, Pierre, Arnie and Jane, for coming, I really appreciated you being there, it really made it for me! It was amazing to me to remember how I came to JBW last year and listened, and then this year I am up there, on the stage... You just never know.

I will be blogging for Jewish Book Week about several science-related events, will post here too. More tomorrow.

PS I also did an interview for a Guardian podcast, more on Wednesday when it goes online.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Jewish Book Week and Costa flash fiction

Today began the UK Jewish Book Week festivities for me and J with lunch at the director of JBW's lovely house, meeting her and a number of the authors who will be reading this coming week. I felt quite green, only having published one book, but everyone was lovely and we certainly weren't the only ones to have come from abroad. There were several authors who couldn't easily answer the question: So, where do you live? Now I've decided I too want several homes, one in Paris and another... well, open to suggestion! The event at which I am reading is tomorrow at 12.30, am quite nervous but also greatly looking forward to chatting about short stories.

Following on from the previous discussion here about all the places flash fiction could appear, J came back the other day with Frothy Tales, a collection of short shorts which he had bought from Costa, the coffee chain, when buying his coffee. Written by Costa-writer-in-residence Davey Spens, this is a little book of tales inspired by the people Davey saw in various Costa coffee branches! Of course, Costa is tied into writing already, being the awarders of the Costa Book Awards. But still - flash fiction up on the counter with your croissants and banana muffins is a wondrous thing! Any more ideas?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Short Review February issue

(Cross-posted with The Short Review blog)

Feb 2009 Issue

Not so much love in the air as revenge, lovers' quarrels, and things that pass for love, but with one happy man who may have been kissed by....under the old devil moon. And some twisted tales, which may make you mad to live for one more year, or drive you to drinking coffee elsewhere.

To foreshadow March's Small Press month, seven reviews of collections from the independent publishers who keep the short story alive and deserve our admiration and support. More in March.


Things that Pass for Love, by Allison Amend
Let's Call the Whole Thing Off, edited by Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith and Sarah Wood
A Happy Man by Axel Thormählen
One More Year, by Sana Krasikov
Old Devil moon by Christopher Fowler
Mad to Live, by Randall Brown
Kissed By, by Alexandra Chasin
Getting Even: Revenge Stories edited by Mitzi Szereto
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Twisted Tails III: Pure Fear edited by J. Richard Jacobs

Allison Amend, Randall Brown, Alexandra Chasin, Christopher Fowler, Mitzi Szereto and Axel Thormählen tell us how they write, what they might ask someone who has read their book, and what "story" means to them.

Head over there. Happy reading!


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Short stories commissioned for London's royal parks

The Guardian reported this today:
Peter Pan flew across Kensington Gardens, Joseph Conrad was inspired to write The Secret Agent by a bomb plot in Greenwich Park and Henry James's characters held many an exquisitely nuanced conversation strolling through them. Now a group of contemporary authors including Will Self, Ali Smith and William Boyd are set to sprinkle a little more literary stardust on London's eight royal parks with a series of short stories set in – and sold from – the capital's grandest green spaces.
The other contributors to the series are Darkmans author Nicola Barker (Greenwich Park), short story writer Clare Wigfall (St James's Park), Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh (Kensington Gardens) and novelist Sheena Mackay (Richmond Park). Al-Shaykh's story will be published in a bilingual English/Arabic edition.
A lovely idea, and very welcome! The stories will be printed on recycled paper and sold from the park shops, as well as bookshops. What next? Swimming pool stories? Fish'n'chip shop stories? I hope so. Read the full Guardian article here.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Instant gratification from PANK

I didn't know it would be so quick, but am delighted that my flash stories, all five of them, are published in Pank's February issue. Click here to read them all. What a beautiful magazine, I am delighted to be part of it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A tag... and one more deadline!

As the Israeli General Election creaks along today in the background, accompanied by storm-like conditions and great wind, I've been tagged by Lauri at Thoughts from Botswana and this is a good one so I am happy to be a taggee. Here is what I am commanded to do:
List at least five things you do to support and spread a love of the written word, then tag five people. (If you list something that touches youngsters, you get a bonus letter!)
Ok, here are my five things:

  1. I set up The Short Review, whose sole aim is to spread the love of short stories, and it seems to be going pretty well so far.
  2. I write about the writing process on this blog, which I hope both demystifies something about the process but also conveys the magic of the written word to those of us who trade in it.
  3. I am teaching a short story workshop (to adults so no bonus point - although one student is 16!) with the aim of conveying my passion for the written word in general and short stories in particular, and bringing the group weird and wonderful short stories they may not have found by themselves just to indicate that a short story is not easily defined.
  4. I write regular "Source of Lit" posts on this blog to spread the word about short stories, books and poems that I have read and loved.
  5. I write and I take the risk of sending my writing out into the world, in the form of short stories and the book (have I mentioned the book????It's still out of stock in the UK and selling for silly prices on Amazon, but this is ridiculousness, and it should be back in stock at normal price later today or tomorrow), sending it again and again even after it gets rejected, which is the most personal way for me to demonstrate my love for the written word.
A great tag because it is something we in this business should think about from time to time. I will tag some of my newer blog colleagues: How Publishing Really Works, The Write Reality, Debi Alper, Forgetting the Time and LitScribbler. Looking forward to your responses.

Ok, addendum to yesterday's Writers Service Announcement:

March 1st: Abroad Writers' Conference, 5000 words, first place wins full tuition to the conference in Scotland (value, $2,750 shared room) or India (includes airfare, value, $4,000); Second-place winners $250.00; and, third-place $50.00. Top 10 Short-Story finalists will have their stories read by Colin O'Reily, the producer of the film "Blades of Glory" with starred Will Ferrell. Postal entry. Fee $25, payable online.

Winners will apparently be announced on March 15th, according to a message I received this morning through Facebook, but this seems incredibly fast so it may be a typo!

Good luck to all.. I had better go and vote.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Writer Service Announcement: Upcoming Deadlines

What do you think of the new look? I just discovered (after the rest of the world, it seems) that Blogger's own templates are not the only templates... there are loads of free templates out there for the taking. This one is called Rotterdam and is designed by Pannasmontata. I love the picture, something very calming about it.

On to the Writer Service Announcement. Here are some upcoming short story competition deadlines you might want to know about. (As usual, all links open new windows/tabs, so feel free to click all of them without fear.)

Feb 14th: Writers & Artists Yearbook: 2000 words, win £500 and a place on an Arvon Foundation writing course worth £575. Online entry. No fee.

Feb 15th: The Binnacle 6th Ultra-Short competition: 150 words, $300 in prizes, min $50. All finalists published in beautiful ultra-short edition. (See my blog post). Online entry. No fee. 2 stories max.

Feb 28th: Summer Literary Seminars: 25 pages (approx 5000 words), winners receive publication in Fence magazine, as well as the participating literary journals in Canada, Russia, Kenya, Italy, and Lithuania. Additionally, the winner will have the choice of attending (including airfare, program fee, and housing) one of the SLS-09 programs – in Vasto, Abruzzo, Italy (May 15-30); Vilnius-Nida, Lithuania (July 20-August 4); or Nairobi-Lamu, Kenya (December). Online entry. $15 fee.

March 6th: Symphony Space Selected Shorts: 600 words, "a single short story that contains a surprise", win $1000 will be read as part of the Selected Shorts performance at Symphony Space on May 20, 2009. Online entry. $10.

March 20th: Fish One-Page Short Competition: 300 words, win €1000, nine runners-up €50, publication in Fish anthology. Online entry. €12.

(opens Feb 15th) March 31st: 10th Raymond Carver Short Story Comp: 6000 words, "a single short story that contains a surprise", win $1000, $750, $500, 2 Editor's Choice prizes $250, publication in Carvezine. Online entry. $15.

March 31st: Press 53 Flash 750 words, short short 1500 words, short 5000 (see site for other categories). previously published pieces are accepted. Win glass trophy and publication in anthology. Online entry. $15.

March 31st: Bristol Short Story Prize 3000 words. Win £500, £300, £250 (plus Waterstone's gift cards), 17 runners-up receive £50, publication in annnual prize anthology. "We also welcome stories in any style- graphic, verse, genre-based, etc., etc." Online entry. £7.

March 31st: Jane Austen Short Story Award 2000-2500 words, inspired by Jane Austen or her writing. Win £1000, 2 runners-up £200, all three win week's writing retreat at Chawton House, 15 shortlisted win £40, publication in annual prize anthology. " Postal entry. £10.
There is no harm getting your story in early, as Women Rule Writer mentioned in her very useful post about judging a short story comp. That said, I am always a last-minute-entry kinda gal. That's just the way I work..

Other news: It has been Rejection City over here at TaniaWrites since the new year began. I never mention all the rejection just so you can think I have a 100% success rate! Duotrope, the best friend of any writer who loves statistics that may or may not mean everything or nothing, tells me my acceptance rate is actually 25%, which sounds about right. So, anyway, this morning I woke up to a rejection and an acceptance, which just sets the day up beautifully! The rejection was for a flash story that was one of the five accepted for publication by Pank, a new magazine I found a few weeks ago and mentioned in my Source of Lit a few weeks ago. A new venue, I am delighted... but am dubious as to whether they have actually accepted all five flashes, which were sent in one document. I am sure they will set me straight later on, but for the moment let's assume it's all of 'em, yippee!

Addendum: I just heard back from Pank, they are accepting all five flashes for publication. Wow! That makes up for January's rejections.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Reading at Jewish Book Week

If any of you are in London in two weeks' time, Feb 22, I will be taking part in an event at Jewish Book Week. In the illustrious company of writers Tamar Yellin, Michelle Wandor and Karen Maitland, I will be reading an extract from my short story, Boiling, at the launch of World Jewish Relief's charity short story anthology, The Sea of Azov.
For more information and how to book tickets, click here. It would be great to meet up with some of you in person!

This from the event description:
Join us to help launch World Jewish Relief's first ever collection of short stories. Jewish and non-Jewish writers from Britain, Israel and North America - including Ali Smith and Nicole Krauss - have come together to support WJR and to tell their tales, trying to make fictional sense of the previous century and the century just beginning to evolve. This book has been given the title of The Sea of Azov, after both the birthplace of Chekhov, that consummate master of the short story, and the site of one of WJR's campaigns to support distressed Jewish communities.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Everything they say is true

Isn't it the case: everyone says something, and you think, Well, maybe that's true but it doesn't apply to me. And then you find out that it does. What am I waffling about? Revising short stories. Everyone says: let it lie, put it away, and then you'll be able to look at it more critically. And I said, No, let me bash away at this for months and months, rewriting, trying different points of views, different tenses, and just NOT GETTING IT RIGHT.

So, today, when thinking about whether I had anything unpublished to send in for a competition, I went to the Very Old Stories I Have Almost Given Up On file on the computer, and opened the document. I loved the premise of this story. But I didn't know how to tell it. Something always felt wrong. I thought to myself, look, send this in, under a psuedonym, since you don't really like it. That felt very sneaky, deceitful, not deceiving anyone else, deceiving myself. Why send in a story you don't really like to a competition? If it wins, how will I feel? But, whatever the case, it was too long, 2500 words had to be cut to 2000.

I started cutting. And as I started cutting, I saw just how much needed to go. I cut and cut for several hours, and it started to feel as though this had been a sculpture hidden under ten extra layers of cladding and I was hacking away to find the shape underneath. It started feeling really good.

In the end, I cut it from 2500 to 1300 - and everything that was stripped away was totally unecessary, it was me explaining what was already there, adding details where none were needed. And what emerged, I hope, is the essence.

I read it to J and he asked me how long it is. And when I told him he said, Oh, it feels like a long story. And in some ways, it is now a bigger story, despite having been severely pruned. Thinking about it, there is now room for the reader to read much more into it than before, when I was hitting the reader over the head with what I thought it all meant. Now, the story happens, and what it means, more or less, is not spelled out, is left there. And because of that, it feels much more intense, like the distillation of the story. As I read it, I felt it, my heart pounding. Where before I had cringed at certain sections, I felt stirred instead. Finally, this is the story I've been trying to tell.

But this revision would not have been possible in the weeks or months after I first wrote the story. I was far too attached to every word, every image, every hit-you-over-the-head unsubtle paragraph. But now, almost 4 years later, I am much farther removed. It's still my child, but now I can see it needs a better haircut, simpler clothing.

Ok, over-analogy-alert. I will stop now. But I feel refreshed, reinvigorated, to be reminded that the old truths are true for a reason: Let it lie. Give it time. Nothing can replace that.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

My pistachio period

Since I mentioned about my coffee shortage yesterday I thought I would share with you a pic of what I drank my coffee in this morning: the mug I made that I picked up yesterday afternoon from my pottery class. I was obssessed with dark reds and then blues, and now I am into my pistachio period. I also love asymmetry, as long as it still stands up and my coffee is safe! Nice, eh?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Writing again

(Links open in a new window, feel free to click!)

I felt it welling up this morning, although the dire coffee shortage seemed as though it might hamper things. I got dressed - already an accomplishment, already making this day different from the days of the previous month - and went out and bought some. It's sunny outside, it's hot. It's February, no wonder the plants are completely confused. Photos of snow in the UK, and here I was boiling in my cardigan.

I made the coffee, sat outside to drink it, and the welling up became stronger and stronger. With the half-drunk cup, I went back inside and fired up the laptop. The desktop is already on but its purpose is different. The laptop is for fiction. I started something, a new version of a very very old story I haven't found a way to tell yet. I wrote a little, and then stopped. Then went to something new, something I decided to write for a themed call for submissions, because this often helps me (sorry, Elizabeth!). Liars' League is calling for submissions on "Art and Science". The deadline is this Friday, in two days. Art and science. That's me. That's what I am all about. If there is anything I have to write, it's this. I started thinking about this over a month ago, before I started feeling unwell. I began something. But for the last four weeks I haven't even been able to approach the idea of getting back into the fictional world. I thought I would just have to scratch this off my Submissions spreadsheet.

But today, I did. I'm back. I climbed back in and it felt good, it felt great! I started writing where I had left off, and then, in line with my theory about distractions, (which got a mention in the New Yorker blog!) started up two online scrabble-like games in order to be able to send my rational mind off to think about word scores while I finished the story. The minimum for the submission was 800 words. At 802 I wrapped it up. Then, since Liars League is where writers write and actors read out the stories, I read it to myself. And then i grinned. I like it. I really like it.

Now I will let it lie. I have two more days. Of course I like it, it's just come out. Tomorrow, I will be able to see it with a bit more distance. More time would help, but that's just the way it is. And it doesn't matter one bit if it's not accepted. It doesn't matter because I wrote it. Now it exists. I got out something that was inside and I expressed something about Art and Science, it took me in a direction that was magical and weird and wonderful, for me. I'm back. I feel better. So much better. Physically, emotionally, mentally. Thank the powers above, or below, or within, or all of them. A good day.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Two Short Review story collections in Top Ten Books to Talk About in 2009

(Cross-posted with The Short Review blog)

The first round of voting has ended and I'm delighted that two short story collections we spotted first, Alison MacLeod's Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction and Sophie Hannah's The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets, are in the final Ten of Spread the Word's Books to Talk About. Two short story collections in the top ten is excellent news for short story lovers!

Now let's take it all the way...The second round of voting, to find The Book To Talk About for World Book Day on March 5th, is now open, so do go and cast your vote (again, if you voted in the first round). Links below to reviews of the two collections.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bookcases and John Updike

In order to give myself the sense of having achieved something during this period when I can't write because of my un-well-ness, I tidied, at long last, our enormous bookcase. This is just novels - short stories, non-fiction, science, other sections are in other rooms. Alphabetically arranged. It is so tall I had to get on a ladder to get to the A - E sections.
It is now beautifully arranged, and dusted. And while I was sorting it all out I found that we have four John Updike books so I decided to make one of them my Shabbat reading as a tribute to the man who wrote, among other things, twelve short story collections between the years 1959 and this year. The book J picked out for me, The Afterlife and Other Stories, was published in 1994 and the title seemed fitting.I have read Updike's stories over the years in the New Yorker, as well as his essays and criticism, but have never considered him to be a favourite of mine. As I started reading it I wondered why on earth I hadn't read more. Hese stories illustrate exactly the point I was trying to make to my short story workshop participants about not giving a reader any excuse, any reason to stop reading your story.

My thesis is that a short story rarely comes along in isolation: it is either in a literary magazine, an anthology or a single author collection. Which means that a reader is always thinking, Well, if I don't like this story I'll go and find another one to read. So, especially at the beginning of a story but as a general rule: grab the reader by the coattails (shirttails? collar? neck?) and don't let go. Don't give them any excuse - boredom, confusion - to leave your story and find another one.

John Updike is a master at this. His prose is such that not only does he not give you a single point at which you could even contemplate pausing to think about stopping, his economy of words is so excellent that you can't even skim for fear of missing a vital detail.

Of course, by this collection, his tenth, he had been writing for 35 years. This kind of mastery doesn't come overnight, it is a product of experience, experimentation, and most of all, I think, supreme confidence. As with Alice Munro, another short story master, none of these stories wrap up neatly, none of them go in the direction you expect.

I wanted to talk about one story in particular: The Journey to the Dead, because this seemed to me, while reading it, a clear window into what the author himself may have felt about death. I say "may have" because it is always the temptation to ascribe a character's desires and traits to the author themselves, and as an author I know how frustrating that can be. However, it is what we have, and at the very least it is astonishingly good writing, stirring and thought-provoking. The story is about a man who becomes friendly with the dying friend of his ex-wife.

Arlene was not the first dying woman of his own age that Fredericks had known. In the suburb where he and Harriet had lived together, a mutual friend, the merriest wife in their circle, had a breast removed in her early forties. For years, that seemed to have solved the problem; then she raucously confided to them, outside the doors of the local supermarket, "The damn stuff's come back!" The last time they saw her it was at a small barbecue lunch that all the guests tacitly knew, though none would admit aloud, to be a farewell to their hostess.

Fredericks is parking and tries to avoid driving over the garden hose. The hostess, cheerful, doesn't seem to care, and he wonders "how these appurtenances to our daily living, as patiently treasured and stored and coiled and repaired as if their usefulness were eternal, must look to someone whose death is imminent. The hose. The flowers. The abandoned trowel... Their value was about to undergo a revision so vast and crushing Fredericks could not imagine it."

After her death, he says:
The dying, he marvelled, do not seem to inhabit a world much different from ours. his elderly neighbours in the suburb plucked with rakes at the leaves on their lawn, walked their old lame dogs and talked of this winter's scheduled trip to Florida as if in death's very gateway there was nothing to do but keep living, living in the same old rut. The gossiped, they pottered, they watched television. No radical insights heightened their conversation, though Fredericks listened expectantly.
Updike, on the other hand, left us with many radical insights. The stories in The Afterlife illuminate the ordinary with such sharpness and skill, they took my breath away. Not only couldn't I stop reading one story, I couldn't stop reading the book. A new collection is due to be published shortly. I cannot wait for what astonishments Updike will continue to bring us from wherever he may be now.