The Sea Inside Me: New Novel with Unthank Books, 2019

Some lovely news about the next novel. Here’s a snippet of the press release. You can read more about it here:

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Ashley Stokes says, The Sea Inside Me, our first SF novel, is set in an England ravaged by civil strife and terrorism. An experimental zone, Newark-by-the-Sea has trialled the Process, the removal of traumatic memories to eliminate crime and fear from the minds of its citizens. Processing Officer Audrey is instructed to tail Candy, a girl resistant to the Process, whose memories are returning, As the Process is about to be rolled out countrywide, a darker, deep-rooted conspiracy coils smoke-like into view. Sarah’s prose is, as ever, vivid and emotive, crammed with stark, sharp images and disturbing insights into the way we are and where we are heading.

https://www.unthankbooks.com/new-title-the-sea-inside-me-by-sarah-dobbs/

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Kidnapped

I miss Sylvie, so have brought her out. I’m just finishing a draft of a new book, a sweaty little mystery set in Sunderland, but keep wanting to go back. I suppose some characters are like that, like burrs.

Two: Sylvie

The strike-flare-suck of the first menthol of the morning. She shakes out the light. Returns the tin to her bedside table. The half-awake morning winks on the gold tin. There is nothing else on the table, but a glass of beading water. She has never needed a clock to know the time. Sylvie hauls velvet-grey smoke into her belly. It fills her with something at least. The tickle in her throat, the tautness of the cigarette as she inhales, shivering within her grasping mouth. The fizzing paper as it burns.

That day, Sylvie had woken with difficulty, as with every other in the last twenty years. Her new city, her new hair, her new Sylvie. There was that slow-domino of Monday to Sunday. That drugged leaking of time. Habit kept distinctness to her days. Habit was her religion. Kept awake that which she had come here to do, as she gathered knowledge, courage.

She taps her legs. There’s the sound of her patting, a reminder to her body. Wake up, wake up.

She has to do this, before the leadenness overwhelms her. Before she is pinned like a butterfly in a whispering museum and the past opens over her like a map. Until she can hear the machine’s warning, its flashing amber lights at her closed eyelids, that neat ripple of cinnamon hair, tauntingly in reach.

Another lungful. Move.

She sat up, drew back the cover.

No body in her bed to manouevre politely around and out of her door at least. She should do less of that, she would do less of that. Is this not the time for resolution? At home, that origin of who she is, her starter self, it was Fete des Rois. Epiphany.

No epiphany about what she is here to do. The thought became a question became a plan became reality; this 30-flat block in the historic centre of this docile city. Where he lived.

If you go through the motions, Sylvie has found, if you create and perpetuate a habit, if you just get up, you evade it for some time.

Thus:

She likes the sunlight on her breasts, her collarbones. The cruelty of its jubilance is sometimes too much. She likes the light best before it’s too loud. She likes to keep the bedroom warm so she can stand and whip up the blinds. Decisively. The sunlight playing over her, she feels cinematic, that life reaches its face into her small world and looks around. She is grateful for the momentary inclusion.

Sylvie picks up the camera from the puddle of clothes where she left them last night. Strides towards the kitchen and lets the pronunciation, from English to French, of the world surveillance play in her mouth. It’s exact same spelling.

The rest of the apartment is arctic. She keeps it this way. Always with windows leaning out. The freedom of circulating air. When it’s hot, her hands flutter to her throat. She looks for exits, she twists with memory. Though can it be memory if it did not happen to you? Might you absorb such a thing? Wishes.

Outside, the clearing of a throat.

Outside, a woman says Ohhhh in such a way to create a tunnel of vowels and says, ‘I’m concerned about the crocuses’.

When Sylvie listens to the world in mornings, there seems always the sound of a car engine idling somewhere, as if waiting eternally for to someone to arrive. She pulls on a hat that she would have knitted with Babette, long ago in her other life, in one of those huddled cafes as far away from Gare du Nord as possible, so Babette could mutter freely, with her downturned mouth and seemingly dark heart. Mittens, fingerless.

Stop.

Memories fray decision, like small fire frays cigarette papers. Not to remember the other things she had knitted. Not to remember the way she had studied patterns, the wool she had travelled on the metro into Paris to select, how the rhythm got into her brain, the callus on her finger that she rubbed absently in the thin cross-hatchings of sleep around her studies of haemoglobin and bloodwork and terms that sang through her body with a triumphant drumbeat; you are something, you are intelligent, you are more than a body. Not that cursed Nicoleau girl with the misleading face who would not wear the Madonna.

The shame coated her, the loathing licked the backs of her thighs. And what now to all that promise?

Stop,’ she whispers to time.

She moves through the images she has taken yesterday. A flicker-book of the man’s Saturday. A salt and pepper-haired man with a face liked balled-up paper. Smoothed out, but never rid of its experience. Near the castle, near the narrow streets and bookshops, a flimsy mint shopping bag holding bread and pies. The pram an awkward appendage. In the last, almost he is about to meet her gaze directly, but for a blonde blur of woman’s hair between the lens and his face.

Breathe.

She inhales. Coffee before the next cigarette.

She sets the camera down on the kitchen counter. Traces lover’s fingers over the backs of her hands. There you are. It feels like such a long time since she was loved – and then what was that really, when you think about it? The nails are short, dented horizontally. Which can be a sign of trauma or Beau’s ridges, age. She knows the term from one of her other lives. Isn’t she only 40 though? Is she 40? There has been so much adjustment, and a disinterest in the dissolution of the years anyway, she cannot any longer be sure.

She picks up the camera again and takes it to the light, the window beyond the sink with the leaky tap that half-fills the bowl every night. She notices a splinter of frost. The next still, and there is Robert, in the corner of a frame. His legs scissoring into shot, like the arms of a compass. His torso is not present, but the round of his shoulders is there, the oval of his face. She zooms in, decides there is the evidence of teenaged acne, pitting the tender skin at his temples. She presses a button. Black.

What else? The slippers with the pompons, the house-coat that she bought in Japan when she was robust and back-packing, in that gap where she left Peter. Twenty years. The thought of him, how openly she’d believed in them, it could still make her feel stupid.

All these years later, it was still hard to believe he hadn’t made her pay for what happened. Sometimes, she would be walking along the corridors of another life and she would think of him. And there would be the sensation of falling.

The anger inside his face. Its pointed corners. Its brick-power. It had knocked something down inside her when she’d seen it, something final. The incontinence of it. Because he had assumed she would just come back, even after everything. ‘You think you won’t be punished?’ The wasp of spit buzzing on her cheeks.

Without Peter, no Letya. Her little mouse, le souree petit. And so those quads she’d had, and so those boots and so that stance and so that knowledge, of her own ability to adapt, just a photograph that presumably no longer existed.

Where was Peter now?

The thought of him even, at large, a million miles too far. No reinvention enough to quite seal him off, to keep him in the past. The way he burned. And she’d remember their lovemaking then, too, feel her neck sting with it. It had been like swimming in the ocean.

Better things. She wishes she lived somewhere warm enough to wake to silk, to a caramel and duck-egg chemise, to fully accommodate the age. Let her hair grow out and change to grey, let the waves take hold, to not have to be a woman. Not yet.

There is the kitchen, quiet in the morning light. There is Mr Fraser in his allotment already, coughing over his potatoes, there is the cafetiere to fill, the water to boil, the coffee to inhale as it steeps. The kitchen will hum. The frying pan will spit and sear, it will seal failed life within the egg. She will dab its yellow with the rye bread from the deli last night. The lids and spoons, the breath of flakes going to the gold fish that she felt this version of herself would have, the percussion of the morning. Sounds that made her real.

If this doesn’t happen, this sequence of events, tastes, physicalities (because after breakfast there are of course the ablutions) the realities, the silence will daub its sadness over her. Gloopy, like wallpaper paste over parted mouth and ears and eyes and nostrils, between her legs. Which is sometimes tender from the night before. And then her body will cling to the bedsheets, sticky and cold. She might not move for days.

But that day. She had somewhere to go and somewhere to be this version of herself. Le Cafe de Mort. It was a chore to translate to French and she realised she had started to think in English. Just as she had once started to think in Peter. They had these in France, all over the world. Where you may talk about death freely. Of course she had never been, would never trade her stories. (My daughter. Mine). But she could invent another death for these purposes.

The coffee grains are expanding, releasing their scent, washing white heat up the glass of the cafetiere. While that is cooking, she unpeels herself from the past and begins to properly dress. Ensures that she covers the white scar, the curlicued L that she had scribed into her own skin, that none of the men had ever noticed.

That day – today – she would be Sylvie.

 

University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award

UPDATE 30 April: Our shortlist is now out. Do have a look to see if you’re on it at

Sarah

http://sunstoryaward.wordpress.com

Rules and Prizes

Judged by the world’s first professor in short fiction, Professor Ailsa Cox.

 We have two categories; 11-17 (where the word limit is 1500 words) and Adults (2500). There is no theme.
New and experienced (published) writers are welcome and prizes are on offer for both categories – £500 for the winning adult and £200 for the winning 11-17 year-old. Shortlisted writers in both categories will be published in a special one-off edition by Bandit Fiction   Winners in the 11-17 category will be entitled to future feedback opportunities from Sunderland Story Club, in an effort to help you continue your writing journey, should you wish to access it.
Entry fee is £5 for the adult category, but free for the 11-17 year olds.
No previously published submissions. International entrants welcome.

Any queries to Sarah Dobbs at sunstoryaward@gmail.com.

https://sunstoryaward.wordpress.com

 

Adult category entrants only, please pay here: online payment

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.

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

We’re meeting January 10th at 5pm, City Library @ Muse

um and Winter Gardens, Sunderland. We’ll be set around the

interactive table for the first meeting. Hope to see you there.

The group will be run by myself and Samuel Weaver on alternate months. Thanks to Sam for the lovely poster.

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Image Copyright Andre Martins de Barros

As an aside, if you’re interested in running a Short Story Club at your local library / community group and you’re in another region, feel free to get in touch sarah.dobbs@sunderland.ac.uk

We’ve wondered whether it could be nice to have a cross-country conversation where we’re all reading the same text, talking about stories not just as stories, but as collections.

 

 

 

 

 

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