Sunderland Story Club

From the new year, we’re going to be running a book club with a difference – a story club focused on looking at multi and mono-authored collections. Nestled within the City Library Sunderland’s new home at the Museum and Winter Gardens, we’ll be discussing everyone from Chekhov to contemporary writers we’ve just discovered. Suggestions welcome… Everyone is welcome but do join our FB group or let us know you’re coming in some way.

January’s book is Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart (Salt Publishing).

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We’re meeting January 10th at 5pm, City Library Sunderland. Hope to see you there.

The group will be run by myself and Samuel Weaver on alternate months.

 

 

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Men Like Air – Tom Connolly

I don’t often enjoy fiction written by male writers as much as I do women’s fiction (of the women’s fiction I enjoy, that is). I can appreciate it for its structure but I haven’t had the same sense of engagement, that sense of sharing a bed, or becoming so a part of the world inside the novel that it’s as familiar as yawning. A strange thing to admit, I suppose, but there often seems to be a veneer that I can’t get past. Not so with this novel.51c3okcygfl-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_

This is a gorgeous book. Finn and Jack are brothers with a tragic past and both just finding their way. I read an interview with the author who described that moment when he grew older than his brother, who had passed away and there’s a moment in the novel when the idea that someone is out there who shares your genetic make-up is not only reassuring but amazing, beautiful, necessary, and the hunger to make the most of that time becomes a real drive. A lovely movement in a novel that was initially about Finn coming to beat the shit out of Jack for abandoning him with his aggressive uncle. And yet the ending feels optimistic as opposed to realistic, in the hymn-like rhythm of its final pages. Who can really have that awareness of the purity of such relationships and of that warmth of love without having been confronted with such loss. And that felt fine, that I didn’t quite believe in the loveliness of the ending, why shouldn’t a novel reach beyond the everyday and demonstrate how things could be and not as they are.

As rich as the male interior lives in the novel were, the women felt sometimes upsettingly 2D, but perhaps this is how they are meant to appear – touching on that elusiveness of understanding between the sexes and just people in general you could add. Sad though that the women seemed nothing more than either sensual and visual or sweet and visual. Dilly, Finn’s early girlfriend is highly-sexed but damaged, beyond redemption it seems and Finn’s second, if brief love, Amy, felt fetishized, as tenderly and sweetly described as she is. Constantly described as exotic, tiny – tiny – tiny – I lost track of how tiny Amy was. I’m surprised Finn kept track of her. She also seemed utterly compliant – she is Gillian Flynn’s ‘cool girl’. I don’t remember Amy speaking much at all. Then there’s Astrid, the anorexic in the art gallery and Susan, a drug addict, both of whom have some light and shade, but again we don’t get much of a glimpse into the interior.

But the men. This novel is about them. The narratives are purposefully focused on the poignancy and power of male relationships and loves as we move between the brothers Finn and Jack, Leo the art gallery owner and William, Leo’s sister’s husband. It reminded me of the male version of Mrs Dalloway, moving seamlessly through a city and its inhabitants, enriching us with footnotes and asterisks. I don’t know if it’s so much a love letter to New York City, as is billed on the cover, but it’s certainly a love letter between brothers and male friendships, and of finding parents and children outside of a typical version of family. There’s also some incredibly funny moments where we see reversals of Finn (chaotic, difficult to control his impulses) and Jack (ordered, contained, somehow not as free). These are characters I’ll be thinking about for a good while.

An absolute must-read.

Interstellar

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An old story, for no other reason than I felt like it, and I smiled at my favourite constellation out the kitchen tonight. The air is boots-on-snow crispy. I’m still trying to move this piece chaotically through time, and perhaps it blathers about a bit too much. And I should be working on my novel…

INTERSTELLAR

Stars blur the glass. Fat balls of rainwater, about to blink, headlights making my Honda windscreen look like the heavens. I brake for the crossing, a specky kid on an orange bike. Comedic with protective gear. A helmet with a miner’s torch, a yellow slicker like he moonlights on some construction site after P.E. I watch the wheels arc, two reflectors spinning crescent moons. Exhaust-smoke mists over the boy, his yellow disinfecting the Constable-gloom.

*

‘I think we should name a star after him,’ mum says on the phone.

I imagine her, drink in hand, luxuriating in a real cigarette. Not the electric ones they gnawed on around me.

‘But I don’t know if it’s legit. I mean how do you know you get an actual star? And nobody else has the same one? You wouldn’t want someone else’s star, would you?’

*

I flick a lever, the wiper bleats and the stars clear. The ’56 is just ribbons of wet-black. I sing a song which carries the reflection of an emotion I used to burn to, where all I was trying to exceed were men who loved like hammers. You’d said, it’s okay not be loved like that. Why not get a cat?

*

‘What do doctors know really?’ I say. ‘How can they know? How can they predict time?’  You’re at that point where you’re Jesus Christ. You’re Mother Teresa. We are the nodding Churchill dogs, the MP back-benchers you so despise. That’s what’s wrong with this country. The lemming mentality, you’d say, under an electric blanket, the fire banked, while we’re all shining in t-shirts. The suspicion I’ve always had, that I am invisible, is spreading.

The Rosetta probe has landed this month. I remember you’d said you always thought you’d see – but I have forgotten what you’d thought. I am always only ever half-listening, day dreaming of to-be-dones.

‘Surely it’s an estimate based on statistics that are widely variable.’ Even I think I sound solid.

You’re nodding while googling about goji berries and other pointless ways to save your own life; I try not to let my guilt leak because I cannot believe in it. I have seen the blood. I have cleaned the blood. It splashes fire behind my eyes every time I try to sleep. Fear climbs into my throat and lays across it, a hammock.

*

I gear through jobs. I smile and nod and I am perfectly pleasant. I’m sorry to hear your dog has an abscess. Of course, you must be quite upset. Why not go home early? Until I can come to the place you now call home. It’s not the place we stamped on bike pedals – ‘you’re going so slow you may as well be dead!’ – ‘tortoise!’ – ‘tortoise wins the race’ – breath shocked away by speed and danger.

Me and you, and the wheelchair go to the movies. We watch Interstellar with half a cluster of other people pegging the seats behind. I think of a game we used to play that I was never good at and which my slow brain can’t name. You’re wearing that bobble hat that makes you look like a garden gnome. Your pushed up specs, your throat-clearing-tic.

I roll my eyes. The clever-dick astronaut explaining black holes to the hick pilot. Basic. But I only know because you’ve taught me. You’d drawn a Christmas tree on a red serviette for point A. Point B is a puppy’s face. The pen had pointed at me. You’d said, Fido is desperate for a piss on the Christmas tree. All the other trees in the forest won’t work for him. Show me the quickest way Fido can feel relief. I’d drawn a straight line. You’d folded the paper and pierced it the same way the astronaut does on the film.

On screen, two men twist in a physical and metaphorical fight for life. My stomach creases. I sob secretly, without breathing; the same thing in another galaxy playing out over us. Your real face is a ghost around the one you’ve got now, the one that wasn’t thin, that you’d used to speak and compell me with the knowledge, the fire. You’d said, but I want to live. The memory knuckles. I’d held your hand. I’d said I’d never let go.

By the time Matt Damon is dead my face is salted, like when we’d been to Formby as children, hurtling towards a receding shore, daring each other to stare at the sun because we knew we shouldn’t.

In the loos, my phone wakes up. New guy. Recorded as Jamie Thingy.

Is it going ok? I just want to be supportive, take you dancing? Sack it all off and stay in and watch a movie.

It’s the things the last one said too, before the sadness of it all made them look another way. When we’d kissed, I’d felt sick. His tongue had tasted of somebody else.

I take you back. I head home, the hours slip under my wheels. Inside, I take another shower; the water lets me think. You gave me a letter. Scrawled across mine, Only to be opened when I’m worm foodbut I know what you’re like. But I’ve been good. The letter is stored as carefully as I store anything, in a bed of bills and half-hearted payslips. (I think I know what it will say. Pick a good man, which I will never do – because how can I, if you will never meet him? Have a niece, have a nephew, look after mum. I will lose the letter the fourth time I move house. I will cry like it’s the end of the world and curse my own chaos. I will never get to read your words). I place a palm on the tiles. I breathe. Steady.

I attempt to think of witty responses to Jamie Thingy. I eat six fig rolls as I’m thinking.

Our family is an asteroid belt. Stretched out over the miles. Thinning. Sometimes, I blackmail mum into putting the video on when she can manage Skype. She is square and stone, sometimes mascara webs her cheeks like it is mapping her. I don’t mention it. I don’t want her to know I’ve seen beyond her make-up.

Would you be okay if we left it this weekend?

*

When you die, I’m not there.

The last time you call, we talk about Star Trek and the relative attractiveness of the various captains. You are bald, you say, your whispery-deep voice, your body already failing, already leaving, like the gradual dissipation of sunspots behind my eyelids.

You clear your throat. ‘People say I look like Picard now.’

‘Dashing,’ I say, even though I’d always thought Picard was overrated.

We listen to each other’s silence. It could stretch forever. I see the reflectors on that boy’s bike, spinning safety, on a trajectory home. There are only so many ways to protect these children.

*

I had been driving to pick up my cat, whose name is Janeway and who is as ugly as a Klingon. I tickle her unfortunate face and she twinkles, eyes grinning tiny. I hear downstairs fighting. This is the move where I lost the letter. Janeway sleeps in the ‘C’ of my body. Purrs bubble through her chest and into mine. Through bamboo blinds, I see a light waking in an opposite house, the breath from outlet pipes pouring into the night, silhouettes in dappled windows as someone runs a bath. It feels like a future. When I close my eyes I see stars, the stain of reflected light. At least we saw the sun.

 

 

Prosegression workshop

Ahead of our new journal launch, I’ll be running a playful workshop on prose fiction in Sunderland this Saturday, as part of the Sunderland Literature Festival. Come! Write! Enjoy! Nothing scary, I sort of promise.

 

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Saboteur Awards – The End

Two posts in one day – It’s getting a bit Crowded House.

I felt so proud to be part of The End, and I’ve just seen this post about it, and wanted to share. It looks like those very kind people at Sabotage felt good things for it too, despite missing out on a prize for their Saboteur Awards. The End by Unthank Books explores responses to Nicholas Ruston’s paintings and varying notions of the end. Such thoughtful and skilled writing sits between the dark cover and spools on beyond it. What felt so unusual about working on it, was the idea that we were all collaborating in a very different way to other collections I’ve written for. And that was an experience. Read together, forward, backwards, dipped in and returned to, I’m still provoked by this collection. Easy for me to say, I suppose, but if you’re intrigued, you can buy it here. Please do. See Zoe Lambert’s piece of musical fiction on grief, which was one of my many favourites.

“The most important anthology in a calamitous year and an extraordinary collaboration between art and fiction where the stories give meaning to the paintings. The included stories by Angela Readman, Ashley Stokes and Sarah Dobbs are worth the cover price on their own. It’s also been produced wonderfully.” 

 

The Short Story Review: Unthology 9

I meant to put this up much earlier, but this is a lovely and detailed review of Unthology 9 which, I think :), has some excellent pieces in. It also contains my story, As Linda Was Buying Tulips.

Just a few snippets here, please see the link for the full review: https://www.theshortstory.co.uk/the-short-story-review-unthology-9-ed-ashley-stokes-and-robin-jones/

Unthology 9 demonstrates the importance of independent publishers like Unthank who provide a platform for some of the most exciting contemporary literature. Here’s to the next one.  …

‘My mother twitches with sex’ – so commences a hard-edged short story (‘As Linda Was Buying Tulips’) by Sarah Dobbs. Here we have an artist son who is uncomfortably obsessed by his twitching mother and her breasts. Throw in a successful father and we’d be screaming Oedipus Complex like every modern-day English lit. student. But there’s no father here. Instead, we’re given the infinitely interesting Linda, and as the narrator notes, ‘neither of us expected Linda.’ She’s fast and fun and frolics and fucks (the language isn’t shy either) with fair abandon. Although the plot twist seems one turn too far, this is a small quibble for a cracking read that injects a strong shot of punchy prose into the book as a whole and remains one of my favourite in the anthology…

 

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Buy Unthology 9 from Unthank Books

We’ve come across John D. Rutter before at TSS (read his story here) and it was a pleasure to see him appear with the piece ‘My Knee’. The title is mundane, but brilliantly so, providing much in terms of tone and style; the reader is given an immediate impression of the narrator: middle class, married, a little dull, and suffering marital problems. The couple have lunch at ‘The French’. The husband drinks wine and his suspicions and aggravations surface. Everything comes to a climax, a crash – metaphorically speaking, and literally. There are some lines which really capture the bitterness of relationships gone wrong, highlighting Rutter’s ability to pinpoint emotional truths succinctly: ‘”It’s not just a fling.” That’s what Pippa said last night, as if somehow a fling would be alright.

Read full review and with thanks to Rupert Dastur, founder of The Short Story Review

 

 

 

Northern Short Story Festival

Northern Short Story Festival, Leeds

Look at the all the shiny things on offer here – also, am giving a workshop on image-based fiction.

A little more information:

We will beg steal and borrow for our image workshop. I work in a variety of media and think that each brightens the other. In the workshop, we’ll borrow a little from script and poetry, but ultimately produce a short piece of work for a target market, should you want to. You could even practice your piece straightaway in the Flash Fiction Slam after the workshop. All levels are welcome, and always happy to tailor my initial plan to the needs of the group.

Here’s an indicative structure – lots to get through!

1 minute silent short

The vignette

Soundscapes and musical fiction

No translations! How to convey meaning with image

Crafting: Heart/head – emotional plot, vs event-based plot

Target market: Segora vignette competition

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Here’s a quick script-based example from the stage directions of a play I’m working on. What does this tell you about the characters? How might you write this in prose? One of the fascinating things about script is that it forces you to rethink (somewhat) our approach to prose. I’m forever filling in the blank spaces, and then trying to create more, to keep a reader guessing. Sharp editing in prose creates jumping points for a reader to imagine, be active, and to interpret for themselves. Who doesn’t like that? Resist translation!

Q/ So – what could this say about the twins’ relationship as demonstrated in these stage directions? Who has the upper-hand? Are you trying to interpret? Is that better than saying, ‘They laugh because they’re no longer angry with each other’. Why do they laugh? Why does Joanie run off-stage? Is If we wrote this in prose, would we actually need to write the internal thoughts (as we often do)? Does a blank space always need filling in? (We’re not completing forms!) Could we even write it like this in a prose piece? (Would it be too bland? What would you add? Why?) Etc…

Dandelions (in-progress)

THE TWINS UNFOLD THEIR ARMS. THEY EACH POINT TO THE OTHER, SHRUG, LAUGH. THEY MOVE CLOSE, CLOSER, SLOWLY START TO PERFORM A CHILD’S HAND-CLAPPING GAME. IT GETS FASTER AND FASTER UNTIL JOANIE CAN’T KEEP UP AND RUNS OFF STAGE. EM RE-FOLDS HER ARMS.

 

 

The Word UK, Flash Fiction Competition

Hello everyone.

You all know I’m a massive fan of flash and I’m happy to be judging this competition below for The Word. Look forward to your entries – any questions, just ask!

Flash Fiction Competition

Free

27 March 2017 03 May 2017

Stories should be no longer than 100 words but there are no restrictions on the subject of your story. Let your imagination run wild.

All submissions will be read by a panel of judges. The top five in each category will be invited to The Word on the 25 June to read (or to have read for them) their stories and the final winner in each category will be announced.

Age groups 16 and under and 17 and over.

Entries must be sent to flashfiction@theworduk.org by May 3 2017 and it’s FREE to enter.

http://theworduk.org/whats-on/flash-fiction-competition/

Flash Fiction Workshop, The Word Festival 2017, South Tyneside

I’m happy to be running a flash fiction workshop at The Word this year. There’s an excellent line up of writers and events, so do have a look. There will also be a flash fiction competition run in conjunction with the festival, so do keep your eyes peeled for that. Getting to the workshop will be good practice for the competition (just saying…)

You can book tickets and find out more information here!

 

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Find out more about the The Word and what’s on here : http://theworduk.org/