Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Interview with Anthony Doerr

There's a lovely interview with one of my new favourite writers, Anthony Doerr, over at r.kv.r.y magazine - do check it out. A little excerpt:
I am very interested in how stories and novels can transport, and transport absolutely.  I’m very much a believer in John Gardner’s notion that fiction writers stitch together dreams, and that we don’t want to unconsciously break those dreams and wake our readers up.  So I spend lots and lots of energy trying to make my sentences as sensual and grounded and seamless as they can be.  And the best way to do that–the best way to transport a reader into another place, another life–is through moment-by-moment sensory detail: through the mouth and the nose, as Mc put it.  The path to the universal, I tell my students, is through the individual.  You reach for the stars by playing in the gravel.

Read the rest of the interview here >>

Monday, August 27, 2012

A quick roundup

So, a brief roundup of a few things - I am interviewed over at the Negative Press blog about my new story, Switchgirls, which is to be included in their anthology, STILL (Sept 2012) inspired by the wonderful photographs of Roelof Bakker, alongside these amazing authors:

Richard Beard, Andrew Blackman, SJ Butler, Myriam Frey, SL Grey,  James Higgerson, Justin Hill, Nicholas Hogg, Ava Homa, Aamer Hussein, Nina Killham, Deborah Klaassen, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Claire Massey, Jan Van Mersbergen, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, James Miller, Mark Piggott, Mary Rechner, David Rose, Nicholas Royle, Preeta Samarasan, Jan Woolf, Evie Wyld and Xu Xi.
Launch event will be on Sept 26th at Foyles in London, more on that soon!

Flash fiction workshops:
There are still places left on the 4-day flash fiction workshop I am running at the excellent Cork International short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, Sept 19-23rd. It's going to be a wonderful workshop, looking at flash fiction from many different angles and writing many new pieces ourselves, do come and join us! Whether you want to write very short stories or longer works, the tools for writing flash fiction are incredibly useful. More information here.

If you are nearer to Bath than Cork, and have an evening rather than 4 days,  booking is now open for the flash fiction workshop I am running on October 11th, 6.30pm-8.30pm, at the fabulous Mr B's Emporium bookshop. Contact Writing Events Bath to secure your place.

That's all for the moment!

Monday, August 20, 2012

It took three years but...

Today a short story I started working on in 2006 is published! Yes, the story may "only" be 800 words, but it took me three years to get those 800 words the way I wanted them. The story, Under the Tree, was accepted by Electric Velocipede at the end of 2009 - and today it's published in Issue 24. (The story is also included in my new collection, with Electric Velocipede's permission.)

I wanted to share a few words about the story, but SPOILER ALERT stop reading now if you'd prefer to just read the story.

Okay. It started with an image in my head: a mother watching her son sitting under a tree in his own garden. And I couldn't figure out - nor could she - what he was doing there. I got very bogged down in trying to find an explanation. Then I took the story-in-progress, which was written quite traditionally at that point, to a workshop run by the wondrous and inspiring Aimee Bender in June 2007. She encouraged us not to look for direct causes for our characters' behaviour, pointing out, quite rightly I think, that we humans very rarely have one cause for our actions and we often have no idea what has spured us to do something. Let go of cause and effect. Great. This began to release something in me ...

The next step which helped me progress with the story was reading two short story collections: Roy Kesey's All Over and Paddy O'Reilly's The End of the World. Roy's was the first example I'd seen of minimalism and experimentalism and that inspired me to move away from the traditional, take some risks, make the reader work. And Paddy's collection had a story in it (completely different from mine) which was divided into sections which each had section headings - and suddenly, using this structure, my story began to fall into place. Someone said once that sometimes structure can ride in like a knight on a white horse and save a story - and that certainly was the case here. It all started to come together.

Anyway, if you'd like to, you can read the finished story, all 800 words, here. I hope you enjoy it!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Englishman by Helena Halme

Very interesting discussions still ongoing in the comments section of my previous post, and I am going to do a post summing up what we were talking about, but in the meantime I want to introduce you to Helena Halme and her debut novel, The Englishman. I've known Helena since we both did the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in 2003, and am so thrilled to be talking about her new book here today. Isn't it a gorgeous cover?

The Englishman is subtitled "Can love go the distance" and it is quite the page-turner, I've had difficulty stopping myself from devouring it. It is the story of Kaisa, a young Finnish girl who meets and falls in love with Peter, an English naval officer. As the blurb says:
"At the age of twenty, Kaisa has her life mapped out. After university in Helsinki, she’s going to marry her well-to-do fiancé, Matti, and live happily ever after. But in October 1980, she's invited to a British Embassy cocktail party, and meets a dashing Naval officer. In the chilly Esplanade Park the Englishman and Kaisa share passionate, secret kisses and promise to meet up again. But they live thousands of miles apart – and Kaisa is engaged to be married.

At the height of the Cold War the Englishman chases Russian submarines whilst Kaisa’s stuck in a country friendly with the Soviet Union. Will their love go the distance?"
Helena, who lives in England and is married to an Englishman, has made no secret of the fact that this novel has its roots in autobiography - in fact, it started life as a series of blog posts called How I Came to Be In England. But what she has done here so well is to completely fictionalize the story and provide all the required tension that keeps you reading and reading. All the small details about Finland and Sweden give the book such colour, and I love seeing England through Kaisa's eyes!

Helena and her book seem to lend themselves well (who doesn't?) to my writing & place questionnaire, so I asked her a few questions:

Where are you?

I live in Crouch End, North London.

How long have you been there?

I was born in Finland and moved to the UK some 25 years ago. Because my husband served in the navy, we move about a lot, finally settling down to Wiltshire where we lived for 15 years in a very rural setting. Some two years ago we decided we’d had enough of country life, upped sticks and moved to the city. And haven’t looked back.

What do you write?

I write fiction, mainly novels set in Finland and Sweden, where, as a child, I lived for a short while. My stories vary from romance (The Englishman) to family sagas (Pappa’s Girl, out in September), to spy thrillers (The Red King of Helsinki out in October). I also write a blog, Helena’s London Life, about my new surroundings.

How do you think where you and where you've been affects what you write about and how you write?

The Real Englishman: Helena's husband David
My origins have everything to do with what I write. I love describing life in Finland or Sweden in my books, as I think most people want a story to take them somewhere, not just emotionally but also geographically.

My latest novel, The Englishman, is set in Finland in the 1980’s and was inspired by my own story of how I met my husband and moved to the UK. It’s my third novel, but the one which is most closely based on my own life.

But I am also hugely affected by my immediate surroundings. A few years ago, when we rented a villa in Sicily, I began a novel after watching a group of local boys dive into the sea from high rocks. Seeing them hurtle down time and time again, not looking where they were jumping, made me fear that they’d hurt themselves. I recalled how my husband had told to me many years previously about a young sailor jumping to his death on a day out by the coast of somewhere. In the story which I started (but haven’t yet finished) a boy plunges to his death from a rock. This story keeps haunting me, so I am sure one day a scene like this will turn up in one of my novels.

Thanks so much Helena, it's going to be a busy year with two more books coming out! You can buy The Englishman  as an ebook on Amazon (current price 0.77p!) or Smashwords ($0.99), find out more about the book  on Facebook and its blog and follow Helena on Twitter to keep up to date with this and her other books.  Good luck with it all, Helena, I am off to find out what happens with Kaisa and Peter....!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What if no-one sees short story collections?

This was going to be another mini-rant in the style of last year's complaint about some literary agents who have a "no response means no" policy, but then I started thinking. Over the past 8 years or so I've been in touch with maybe 20 literary agents, in the UK, US and Canada, and heard about many, many more from writer friends, and the refrain is always the same:
[I really like your writing but] I can't sell a short story collection (or novella), publishers don't want them; come back when you've got a novel. 
This week I had a slight variation on that theme in a reply from an agent (to whom I am very grateful that she replied and so quickly!):
Come back when you have a full length novel
While I'm not exactly sure what the requirements are for a full-length novel, this is not what I wanted to discuss. The thought suddenly struck me that if agents are blocking us at the first hurdle, publishers never get offered short story collections (or novellas). They never even see them. So how are they supposed to know whether they want to publish them or not?

Of course, it may be that the publishers are sending instructions to the agents along the lines of: Don't bring us short stories, poetry, novellas, science fiction, paranormal detective fiction, novels under 150 pages etc..etc.. etc.. and the agents are just acting as their gatekeepers. But with such gatekeepers, who aren't prepared to even try and fight for something that's slightly off-message, what are we to do, and, more importantly, what does it say about the state of mainstream publishing?

Once again, I give thanks for the many amazing small independent presses - Salt and Tangent Books in particular, on a personal level - who publish whatever they like, whatever they love, with not much thought of breaking even let alone profit. But is this the situation the major publishers want to be in? Do they not want to be persuaded - and in turn attempt, using their marketing wizards, to persuade a public that does, it seem still remain hungry for some novelty - by something different, something that isn't a novel?

I would love to hear from literary agents and publishers here - please pass on this blog post and see if anyone will comment. Am I not thinking commercially enough? Where is my thinking going wrong here? Be honest with me, am I being clouded by my own failure to find representation?

Friday, August 10, 2012

My life in short fiction

Dan Powell - a fantastic writer and short fiction champion whose short story, Half-Mown Lawn! is included in Best British Short Stories 2012 - asked me some of the hardest questions I've ever been asked to do with short stories, and it took me three months to answer them! They are now live on his excellent blog, part of his My Life In Short Fiction series - this way>>

Monday, August 06, 2012

Bookmunch: Experimental Yet Accessible

Ebba Brooks has reviewed My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions at Bookmunch, calling it "experimental yet accessible", which makes me happy. She says:

Short fiction apparently doesn’t sell perhaps because it is notoriously ‘difficult’. It’s stuff to be studied in universities, not read for pleasure. Or is it? Hershman’s fictions are experimental yet accessible, and their length acts in their favour in a world where we are all apparently time-poor and attention deficit disordered.
The title story is a great place to start. It showcases Hershman’s ability to extend an apt metaphor, and make it resound with meaning, humour and pathos in a minimum of words:
“My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro.”
The whole story is barely more than a page long, but this first line takes you right to the heart of the issue. Getting the opening right is one of the big challenges of short form writing, and it’s one of Hershman’s real strengths.
Ebba ends by saying: "Good book for people with no time. Read on public transport, between meetings, when the baby’s having a nap. Recommended for aspiring short fiction writers. Read this and learn your craft."Thank you Ebba and Bookmunch! Read the full review here.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

And Other Poems

Poetry, as you know, is something that both thrills me and - when I am trying to write it - makes me quite nervous. I have written some things I think are poems, and have been published as poems, but still the nerves remain. So I was delighted when the wonderful Josephine Corcoran, my Twitter friend, asked me to contribute a poem to her brand new site, And Other Poems - "simply a blog of poems". All the poetry there has been previously published elsewhere, a lovely idea to have a site gathering poems that perhaps appeared in print so that more of us can read them. My poem, Moss, went up today - and I urge you to wander around the site, the other poetry, by Christian Ward and by Josephine herself,  is just fantastic. And the site's simplicity is a very soothing antidote to today's bombardment. I am honoured, thank you, Josephine, for asking.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Tony Hogan Pops By

I first met Kerry Hudson through her blog, Kerry's Window, a few years ago now, I think, bonding through short stories, of course! I am absolutely and utterly thrilled to now be welcoming her here to chat about her brand new and debut novel, the excellent-titled (she even beats my book for title length) Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It is a fantastically-voiced, evocative, dark and yet hopeful story of Janie, who talks to us from the moment of her birth, and whom we follow as her mother drags her from one less-than-salubrious Scottish council flat to another, with a succession of highly unsuitable boyfriends, including the eponymous Tony H.

Place and location are very strong in the book, and Kerry herself grew up "in a succession of council estates, caravans and B&Bs", so I decided to ask Kerry my Writing & Place questionnaire:

Tania: Where are you? 

The Turkish wedding dress shop
Kerry: I'm at my window looking over all of Hackney. I live above a Turkish wedding dress shop (yes, those are the dresses) on the top floor and can see all the way across Hackney to the BT Tower.

T: How long have you been there? 

K: Four years in total, broken by six months in Vietnam. So two years were spent up towards the Stoke Newington end which is very liberal and environmentally oriented (lots of yoga mats and organic food) and then the last two years down the Dalston end which is hipster central (think warehouse parties, 90's fashion and Red Stripe). For all that, there's an incredibly diverse community here: Caribbean, African, Turkish, Orthodox Jewish, Kurdish, Hungarian, Cockneys and a fairly big gay community and for the most part we all get along great. I feel so at home here, I truly love it.

T:  What do you write? 

Novels. I write short stories too but I find them far more difficult. I do poetry only when it is someone's birthday and I know they won't mind my rhyming 'cat' with 'mat' in their card. I'm about to start a short screenplay and want to adapt Tony Hogan into a stage play too. Oh, and lists. I am a list obsessive.

T: How do you think where you and where you've been affects what you write about and how you write? 

The view from Kerry's window
Because Tony Hogan... is based on my own upbringing I would say sense of place is hugely important to how I write (and to the book as sense of place is a significant thing Janie and her family lack). Every estate, council flat and B&B that Janie Ryan lived in, I lived in too and I couldn't have written what I did without those places.

Likewise, my second novel, Thirst, is set between my current neighbourhood and Siberia and I travelled across the length of Russia to make sure the Siberia sections were as honest and realistic as possible. Funnily enough, I've travelled fairly extensively elsewhere. I've never written anything exploring those travels but I like to think that one day it'll be time to write my Vietnamese/Parisian/American novel.

Thank you so much, Kerry - good luck with the screenplay and the adaptation into a stage play, I've tried those and they're really fun! To find out more about Kerry, visit her website and I highly recommend you get your hands on her book!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Interview & Book Giveaway

I'm interviewed over at Cyprus Well as their August feature - and giving away a copy of My Mother Was An Upright Piano to a lucky reader in the south-west of England! You just need to come up with a creative answer to the question posed...