Maria Donovan; Long-lists, first lines and ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’

41POingnfmL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_We’re incredibly pleased to hear that Maria Donovan has been long-listed for the Hall & Woodhouse DLF Local Writing Prize for her book The Chicken Soup Murder. It’s a huge achievement considering this year the DLF received over 70 entries, and we’re all crossing our fingers for the next round!

You can purchase a copy of Donovan’s thrilling and genre-transcendent debut novel here: The Chicken Soup Murder

Donovan has been busy lately, and has recently been interviewed by novelist Shauna Gilligan for her Writer’s Chat Series. To read the two discussing breaking down genres, developing complex and sympathetic characters and to hear about Donovan’s upcoming plans, follow the link here: Donovan’s Interview

 

Jayne Joso on Child Characters and her New Book; ‘From Seven to the Sea’

Jayne Joso author of My Falling Down House

Author Jayne Joso has recently been interviewed about how she creates compelling child characters. Her latest book, From Seven to the Sea, features a complex and beautifully written portrait of a seven-year-old girl, Esther.From Seven to the Sea

Children are amazing, they are so complicated and, at the same time, simple and straightforward in many ways, but what they lack is the vocabulary to describe their lives, particularly their feelings, and so it is easy for these feelings, their inner lives, to be overlooked.

You can read Joso’s full and insightful interview here: http://www.skylightrain.com/how-to-create-compelling-child…/

And purchase the wonderful From Seven to the Sea here:  https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/seven-sea

Later this month, Joso will also be discussing her new novel alongside Deborah Kay Davies, hosted by Dylan Moore, at the Hay Festival 2019. The event, taking place on Wednesday, 29th May, 2.30pm at the Compass Studio is entitled Fiction: Freedoms.

Find out more and book your tickets here: https://hayfestival.com/p-15412-jayne-joso-and-deborah-kay-…

Joso will also be bringing her book to the Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, in July; details to follow, so watch this space…

An interview with Christopher Meredith

Christopher Meredith interview

Brief Lives Christopher MeredithChristopher Meredith is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry. He has published four novels, three full poetry collections, and several shorter works. He is also the subject of a new Writers of Wales critical study, written by Diana Wallace.
Meredith’s new book, Brief Lives, is his first venture into short story writing – and its release comes thirty years after his groundbreaking debut novel, Shifts.

In this interview, Rosie Johns asks Chris about creative inspiration, the impact of personal experience, and the challenge of playing with tone and style in the short story form.

In the acknowledgements, you mention that you felt Brief Lives is an unoriginal title; what about it was so important to the collection that you decided to keep it anyway?
It’s not that I feel the title’s unoriginal – it is. Apart from the famous John Aubrey book from the 17th century at least one novel, other story collections, various book series and radio series have used this title. It was simply my working title as the book evolved, and it grew to fit. Ultimately the publisher registered the ISBN under this title without checking with me and there we were. In some ways that was a relief as it was probably the right title all along, and the subtitle six fictions does a bit of extra work.
Calling this book Brief Lives was a bit like a composer calling a piece Nocturne or Study or Caprice. It draws on a myth kitty of shared knowledge and expectations and suggests both form and theme. But the two words are very charged. As used originally for Aubrey’s short biographical notes on real people, the word ‘brief’ implies that the writing is not the whole story. In its origins, ‘brief’ can mean a summary, or better a compression. In one story, ‘Progress’, the young man standing on a bridge actually uses the word ‘summaries’ to describe, euphemistically, a blaze of powerful memory that’s just run through his head. While a summary can sound like an arid thing, it can also suggest; its compression can expand in the mind after the reading. A few reviewers have commented on the intensity of this book which perhaps is an effect of those compressions opening in the mind.
So it’s the writing that’s ‘brief’, but of course there’s the thought that life itself is brief too, and the fact of mortality haunts this book. Every story touches on death in some way. The powerful conflation of art and reality in that double meaning partly explains why the title has such a draw.

The story ‘Opening Time’ features in two very different books: Snaring Heaven and now Brief Lives. What drives your certainty that it belongs in both, despite their differences?
Snaring Heaven is a collection of poems. There are echoes and connections between that story at the end of the collection and other poems in that book and also its title; exactly the same thing happens in different terms in Brief Lives. There it gathers many of the elements and effects of the previous stories and goes beyond their various realisms. Readers can compare the two books and decide for themselves.

Does writing about Wales in English differ from writing about it in Welsh? And if so, how?
I’ve written little in Welsh and in all my writing I hardly ever write about Wales. It’s not a subject but often, perhaps always, part of the context. The one difference I can think of is that when writing in Welsh that context is manifest. Of Wales, not about.

How much of your own experience is reflected in the three stories that take place in Wales, and how is this influenced by the connection between place and memory, as demonstrated in ‘The Enthusiast’? And in stories with less explicit locations, how else do your experiences inform the narrative?Everything you write has to come from somewhere in your own experience, even if that experience is sometimes reading, research, dreams, stuff overheard, something glimpsed, stuff at second or third hand, etc., and all of that’s then transformed in the imagination and the process of writing. In that sense, everything in the book comes from that slippery thing ‘experience’, and I don’t see the value in looking for differences in how that plays in relation to ‘place’. The mediation of that stuff into the final story can be immensely complex and obscure. I’ve never waded into a cold river to rescue a child as happens in the supposedly realistic and located ‘The Enthusiast’, but it became useful for the story to imagine how that would feel. On the other hand, in ‘Haptivox’, one of the strangest and least ‘realistic’ stories, though I’ve never magically changed sex, as happens there, I have noticed a bird looking like a comma hanging on a sawn branch, and I’ve swum in ocean so clear that you can see the sea bed vividly even at quite great depths. Anyway, the story you write doesn’t care about you or your experience. It just has to work.

‘Haptivox’ certainly stands out with its more ambiguous sense of place, and the science fiction elements. How did this change of tone affect your portrayal of individuals and their internal lives?
I think there are shades of ambiguity in relation to both place and genre. Formally, ‘Haptivox’ is similar to the opening story ‘Averted Vision’ in that it’s broadly third person, inhabits two points of view, and is divided into short sections. The two stories, I hope, share an unreal and intense quality. The exact setting for ‘Averted Vision’ is never made completely explicit. I hope it’s more vivid for that; there are clues and it’s roughly guessable. A date and place are given away only in the cover blurb in fact, not in the story. For the characters, the nightmare time at sea feels dis-located in time and space, unreal, and the word ‘real’ plays a key and dark part in the story. Fewer suggestions for location are needed for ‘Haptivox’ to work. But the potential of short fiction to reach for the simultaneously emblematic and, I hope, psychologically rich and convincing is at work in both, perhaps all, the stories, but in nuanced ways. The two overwrought young soldiers in ‘Averted Vision’ are named because they’re both male and I need to distinguish between them. The man and woman in ‘Haptivox’ are unnamed because ‘he’ and ‘she’ can do all the work. But at the same time that works in an emblematic way with the fact that story is partly to do with maleness and femaleness. In that sense ‘Haptivox’ moves towards the more manifestly general. But in every story I think I found myself looking into brief, often small moments in lives and at the interplay between moment and memory in isolated people to gain vistas into vast and perhaps shared spaces.

 

 

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An interview with poet Ross Cogan

Ross Cogan BragrBragr is Ross Cogan’s third collection of poetry, an compelling mix of environmental woes, apocalyptic predictions, and richly reimagined tales from Norse mythology.

Where does Cogan’s inspiration come from, and what does he hope readers will take away from Bragr? In this interview, we aim to find out.

 

Where does your interest in Norse mythology stem from, and what made you
choose to combine your environmental concerns with these ancient characters, who are so detached from our modern woes?
I can’t remember when I first became interested in Norse mythology as such, though I have been interested in history and mythology since I was at school. But I would challenge the idea that the Gods and mortals of Norse myth (or other myths for that matter) are at all remote from our ‘modern woes’. The Norse Gods, like many pagan Gods, are personifications of different aspects of our world. Odin, for example, is associated with knowledge, wisdom, poetry and healing but also battle and death; Frigg, his wife, with wisdom and foreknowledge; Thor isn’t just the God of thunder, storms and strength, but also of farming and crop fertility; while Freyja is associated with love, sex, fertility and beauty but also, like Odin, war and death. Each would have had their sacred places, and the landscape would have been full of its spirits and monsters, and heavy with sacred associations. So to me the connections between the ancient Gods and our modern concerns are striking.

Through the course of Bragr a world is created in which the environment is
considered unimportant until it is too late. The ‘Bestiary’ section reads as a lament to the loss of many of Earth’s animals whereas the poem ‘Ragnarök’ describes the earth succumbing to a major natural disaster. However, the concluding poem of the collection, ‘Wreath’, is optimistic in comparison, suggesting that it is possible for the earth to recover. Does this interpretation match your own views on the planet’s environmental state?
During its 4.5 billion-and-something year history the earth has survived all sorts of major changes. It’s been far hotter than it is now and far colder. And for about 3.8 billion of those years there has been life on earth of some kind. But individual species come and go with dizzying regularity. At the moment we humans are busy fouling our nests and bringing about the sixth great mass extinction event in earth’s history. But the fact that this is the sixth mass extinction shows that the earth will survive and life will survive and, given time, recover. I’m less optimistic – in fact downright pessimistic – that human life will survive. But I don’t want to rule it out. Most people have heard of the great battle of Ragnarök that spells the ‘doom of the Gods’. However in my experience few realise that it doesn’t signify the end of the world or even the end of the Gods; a few survive, as do a few people, to start the cycle again. Personally I’m from the apocalyptic edge of the environmental movement, along with writers like Paul Kingsnorth (whose recent essay collection
‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ is outstanding). I believe that
humanity won’t change its ways and that, even if it could, it’s too late; we’ve passed a tipping point and are heading towards a catastrophe from which no amount of wind farms and solar panels will save us. But I’d like to think that the door is still open, just as the writers of the original Eddic verse did, for remnants of humanity to survive and thrive. That’s the role of ‘Wreath’ in the collection.

If you could only recommend one poem from Bragr that is the epitome of your own values, which would you choose?
‘Lapstrake’. One of the best experiences you can have as a poet is when a poem breaks free from your control and you realise that you’re not writing it any more, it’s writing itself through you. It’s very rare in my experience, but this was one of them. The word is an old one for what’s better known as clinker building – the process of boat building where each stave overlaps the next. It’s a genuine art – boats built like this are very beautiful. But it also tends to result in craft that are versatile, stable, responsive, easy to handle and flexible enough to deal with high seas. The Vikings sailed to America in ships built like this. The poem emerged from my realisation that their shipwrights were, to an extent, following natural forms. It reflects my deeply-held belief that humans are often at their best when they live in harmony with the rest of the natural world, work with it and borrow natural models for use in their own creation. It also reflects my enormous respect for the skills of traditional craftspeople. I’ve always seen poetry as primarily a craft enjoining upon its practitioners the duty to practice for years, study the forms and the great poetry of the past, and never to be satisfied with substandard work. If I ever produce a poem half as amazing as the Gokstad ship, I will be happy. By the way, I was delighted when Carol Rumens chose ‘Lapstrake’ as her Guardian Poem of the Week for 6 August, so you can read it, along with her perceptive commentary, on the Guardian website.

The poems ‘Willow’ and ‘Wreath’ seem to mirror each other, as in both a tree
miraculously grows from branches removed from the tree. The central difference between the two is the environment in which it occurs; ‘Willow’ occurs in a land of plenty, whereas ‘Wreath’ takes place following a natural disaster. What conclusions do you hope readers will draw when reading these two poems in conjunction?
I see now that ‘Willow’ and ‘Wreath’ are companion pieces of a sort, but I must admit that it’s also a happy accident that they came to be written since both also describe real events. I really did plant a willow branch in the ground to mark a row of vegetables and it really did take root and grow into a sapling which, several years later I took down (it was now shading out the vegetable seedlings). I also pruned back a horse chestnut and was surprised when, the following year, the branches that I’d stacked up and supposed were dead, broke into leaf. As it happens there are a number of myths concerning trees that take root from branches planted in the ground. Most famously Joseph of Arimathea’s staff is supposed to have become the Glastonbury Thorn, but the Anglo-Saxon St Etheldreda’s staff apparently became the greatest Ash tree in the land – which looks to me like a pagan borrowing, since the link to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, is obvious. I was aware that trees could do this, and that willow branches in particular had a great ability to take root. However I was genuinely surprised by the Horse Chestnut. I’ve talked above about the role of ‘Wreath’ in the collection, representing as it does the possibility of redemption and survival after the calamity of Ragnarök. So reading the two poems together (and remembering that I didn’t specifically write them to be companion pieces – that just happened), they seem to me to reflect the way in which, in our time of plenty, we have tended to grow complacent and will cheerfully disregard, even hold in contempt, the miracles that occur on a daily basis.

In ‘Kvasir’s blood’, other names for the blood are listed including “the Mead of Poetry”. Do you feel that pain and suffering is essential for creating poetry or do you think you can write with emotional detachment and still create powerful work?
I know that many poets find that, as Henry de Montherlant said, “happiness writes in white ink on a white page”. Some have certainly done their best work when they were depressed. However, just as there are a lot of different poets with different personalities, I don’t think there’s one rule that suits everyone, and poetry written from joy or with emotional detachment can also work. Personally – and this is probably just a reflection of my own personality – I have a lot of sympathy with Wordsworth’s claim that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”, as I need complete calm to write well. I can’t write when it’s noisy, or when I am upset (or for that matter overjoyed) about something. It almost feels as if, for me at least, writing poetry has something of the flavour of meditation, where you attain enough distance to be able to reflect upon and examine the emotions and
ideas that have provoked it. This also imposes some practical constraints: in order to write not only do I need quiet, I also need time – typically I book out a minimum of three or four uninterrupted hours and spend the first of these sitting and staring at a blank sheet before the words come to me. Incidentally, ‘Kvasir’s Blood’ is not actually blood but really is mead, or perhaps wine or some other fermented drink (Kvass is a traditional drink made across Russia and the Baltic from rye bread). So you might also ask ‘is the consumption of alcohol essential for creating poetry?’

What did you find most challenging about bringing the collection together, and what piece of advice would you give to aspiring poets who are trying to do the same?
I mentioned above my conviction that poetry was a craft and should be treated as such. And one of the things that means for me is cultivating patience. If you are learning how to play a musical instrument or build a cabinet, you will need to spend thousands of hours playing the same scales over and over again, or whole days sanding down joints until they fit perfectly. But few, if any, of us are born with patience. So the most challenging thing about writing, in my experience, is not writing. Lots of writing tutors now advise young poets to get into the habit of writing every day – which is fine if they’re going to treat it purely as an exercise and throw most of it away. What I would stress is that it’s just as important to know when you are too tired or emotional, or just lacking in inspiration, to write, and then have the courage to wait. Aspiring poets aren’t necessarily going to like this, but the advice I would give them is not to publish too early. There is a lot of pressure on young writers – especially those who want to get jobs in creative writing – to get that book out in their mid-, or even early, twenties when they can still be ‘the next big thing’. But this can lead people to rushing into print with work that’s not as good as it could have been, and possibly regretting it. Personally I didn’t publish my first book until I was thirty five, and looking back I wish I had held my nerve even longer.

What are your plans for the future? Are there any new works or events we can look out for?
With luck I will be doing a number of readings over the next year or two linked to Bragr. Other than that, like a lot of writers, I don’t much like talking about work in progress, but let’s just say I have a number of ideas I’m developing at the moment.

 

Ross Cogan will be reading from Bragr at Buzzwords in Cheltenham, Sunday 2nd September. You can also catch him at the Cardiff Book Festival, where he will be performing alongside a chorus of poetic voices in the Friday Night Poetry Party, Friday 7th September

 

An Interview with Polly Atkin

Interview with Polly Atkin

From nature, to places we call home and poetic inspiration – today we talk to Polly Atkin about her debut collection, Basic Nest Architecture.

Polly Atkin interviewPolly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her debut poetry pamphlet bone song (Clitheroe: Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award, 2009. Her second poetry pamphlet Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013) won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012. In 2014 an extract from her first collection, Basic Nest Architecture, was awarded New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize for ‘reflect[ing] a strong sense of place or the natural environment’. Polly has taught English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University and the Universities of Strathclyde and Cumbria.

 

Basic Nest Architecture Polly AtkinIn Basic Nest Architecture, the contrast between city and country, natural and unnatural, is at the forefront of many of the poems – did this theme emerge organically through the process of your writing, or was there a conscious fascination with the urban & rural you sought to explore from the outset?
I think the poems try to trouble the idea of these binaries – I’m not a fan of binaries generally; they always over-simplify – and especially the way people use terms like ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ or ‘rural’ or ‘urban’ to certain ends. The natural/unnatural dichotomy in particular is something that really bothers me. Natural to whom, or what? Unnatural how, and in what context?

There’s a very practical movement behind the appearance of some of those concerns in the poems – in 2006 I moved to Lancashire, and then to the Lake District – after seven years living in East London. People often think of the Lake District as a kind of little wilderness, but it’s actually one of the most populated national parks, with over 40, 000 people living within its boundaries. It contains towns and villages and a vast array of different kinds of managed lands, yet we are constantly encouraged to see it as wild and empty ‘Nature’, including by the Lake District National Park Authority themselves. People have a tendency to associate the rural with the past, and the urban with the future or with modernity. This association is as ancient as cities themselves, and hard to challenge. I don’t know what the best answers to our current environmental crises are, but re-examining some assumptions about how we live, and what we live with, seems pretty central to me. I’ve been doing that in a very small way in my own life, and I hope the poems are doing that too.

Which do you find a better source of poetic inspiration – the natural world or the urban one? Do you think your poetic style has shifted as you’ve moved from city to country?
I would never say one or other was more ‘inspirational’. A poet I respect a lot said to me a while ago ‘you’ve found your place’, and I think that’s the key, for me at least. I loved living in London whilst I was there, but when I left, it was coming out of a long fever or something. I had never loved a place I lived in before Grasmere, only the things a place provided for me, and the ways it allowed me to live. Really loving the place I woke up in every day was a radical difference for me.

As for style … I’m very much of the mind that it is important to keep learning and developing and changing, as a person, as an artist. What influences that change and growth can be many things, from what you read, to social and political changes, to changes in your environment. If I’m still writing the same way in ten years time that I am now, I’ll have to have a serious word with myself, if someone else doesn’t get there first.

In ‘Buzz Pollination’ we see a bee attempting to take pollen from a woman’s bracelet: ‘tricked by the blossom/ of my bracelet’s fat fake pearls, their delicious/ lustre’. The pearls are pretty yet useless – would you say this is indicative of the human preoccupation with aesthetics?
Partly … people can get very focused on the external without considering usefulness, and yes, that might suggest a preoccupation with aesthetics over function. But I wouldn’t say beauty didn’t have a purpose. Going back to the first question, those beads are something inorganic that is mistaken as organic. It’s not the fact that they’re not ‘natural’ that’s the problem, or that they’re fake pearls and not flowers, but that they’re in the wrong place. The bee needs flowers, and the flowers need the bee. But from my very selfish human perspective, the bee’s inappropriate attraction to my bracelet made me feel like the bee and I had some kind of connection. I liked it; liked the fact it kept coming back to me, as though that made me special, even though I knew on a larger scale that meant both the end of the bee, and the end of pollination. So maybe it’s really about human selfishness, and prioritising the human experience over the needs of the non-human.

Several of the poems seem to express the view that urbanization is destroying the natural world in the name of progress, particularly in the poem ‘The New Path’. Do you think that more should be done to protect British wildlife? Do you hope that your poetry inspires its readers to be more active in protecting it?
That’s a big ask for a poem, isn’t it? The most I can hope for is that some of these poem might make some readers question some of the ways they respond to the things around them, including, but by no means limited to, animals. There are a lot of debates about what animals should or should not be protected. I’m very aware of my status in Cumbria as an off-comer – an incomer, raised in an urban environment – exactly the kind of person who would sentimentalise foxes or badgers, and prioritise of the aesthetics of the landscape over practical concerns. ‘The New Path’ is literally about a new path, which seemed grotesque in its insistence on ease of movement, and in its inappropriateness in the landscape. But, like the road in the epigraph, ‘we take it nonetheless’. Why? Because it’s easier. If it allows access to someone who was unable to use the more aesthetically pleasing old path, maybe it’s not the new path that’s unreasonable.

Some of the poems capture the unease and discomfort at not feeling at home in either your location or your mind – for example ‘Dreams’ and ‘Colony Collapse Disorder.’ Did you find it difficult to write about such personal feelings, particularly when writing about your illness, or was this cathartic?
I wouldn’t say it was either particularly difficult or particularly cathartic, no more so than writing anything. Chronic illness, pain, and all the strange and marvellous things that come with them, are facts of my life. I write about them in the same way as I write about anything. Another way of looking at it is that all my writing is filtered through my mind and my body, my experience of the world, so I am always writing through those things, through personal and bodily feelings, whether they are the subject of the poem or not. Everything is both personal and totally impersonal in a poem. Once you write about it, it is outside you. It no longer belongs to you. I do joke a lot about ‘the Plath consolation’, that idea of ‘grit into art’, but it’s a very troubled concept, particularly where Disability is concerned. I recently heard David Constantine answer a similar question, and he said (in my poor paraphrase) that writing can’t be redemptive, or consolatory, that it can’t change the facts of real life, but that what it does instead is imagine different ways of being, different human possibilities. I thought that was very beautiful.

Lastly, what can we look forward to next? Are you working on any other exciting projects, or appearing at any events soon?
I’m working on new poems, but I’m not quite sure how they’ll come together yet. I’ve been working on a sequence about experiences of venesection (taking blood) as a treatment for Haemochromatosis, which will be included in a Wellcome Trust funded project called Books of Blood. Two of the poems from this sequence are going to be published in an anthology, Gush (Fronetac House, 2018), ed. by Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon and Tanis McDonald. I’ve got some other possible projects lining up but I can’t talk about them yet!

I’m lucky to have quite a few readings and events over the next few months including:

  • Guest Poet at The Garsdale Retreat, ‘Writing The Land: Crafting Poems from Inspired Communion’, Sedbergh, Wednesday August 23rd 2017.
  • Reading for Caught by The River at The Good Life Experience, Hawarden Estate, Flintshire, Saturday September 16th, 2017.
  • ‘Northern Poets’ event at Durham Book Festival, Saturday October 14th.
  • Reading with Elizabeth Jane Burnett at Kendal Mountain Festival, Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, Saturday November 18th, 2017.

I put new events up on my website, so keep an eye on https://pollyatkin.com/events/ if you’re interested.

 

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An Interview with Caroline Smith

An interview with Caroline Smith The Immigration Handbook

Today we are joined by Caroline Smith, whose new poetry collection The Immigration Handbook weaves together stories of hope, frustration and pain, drawn from Smith’s experience as an Immigration Caseworker.

CarolineSmith CropCaroline Smith was born in Ilford and grew up in Hertfordshire. She originally trained as a sculptor at Goldsmith’s College. Her first publication was a 30-page narrative poem, ‘Edith’. Smith’s first full collection, The Thistles of the Hesperides (Flambard), is about the community of West Pilton in Scotland where Caroline lived in the 1980s when it was one of the most deprived housing estates in Europe. Using imagery and structure from Greek mythology, and direct stories from observed lives, the poet weaves a dense and dramatic tension between the harshness of reality and the lyricism of myth. Published widely in journals like Poetry Wales, Poetry Review, Staple, Orbis and Stand, she has twice won prizes in the Troubadour Poetry Competition.  Smith has had work set to music, broadcast on the BBC and is also the author of a musical play, The Bedseller’s Tale, that was performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  She lives in London with her family.

 The Immigration Handbook Caroline SmithYour new poetry collection, The Immigration Handbook, brings to life the stories from migrants and refugees that you hear every day in your work as an Immigration Caseworker. What made you choose to transcribe these deeply affecting stories, and was the process cathartic?

Writing thousands of letters to the Home Office over the years, I think about language, what turns a letter into a poem, the different functions of language and how by changing the angle or perspective on a subject you can show it afresh. My book is another way of contributing to the immigration debate, but it is primarily a book of poetry. It’s the stuff of my life so it’s what I make art out of.

When I was younger I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a priest or a sculptor – so I campaigned for women’s equality and ended up as a poet! But in a sense these twin strands have come together in my poetry; my interest in social justice and my training as a sculptor who needs always to recreate the world in a different way.

I’ve never found writing cathartic. When I am most upset about something I want it to stop, I don’t write my way out of it. I see my work as an Immigration Caseworker and my poetry as separate. I get angry and try to change the system, but for poetry I need distance and reflection and I enjoy the creative process; the juxtaposition of odd fragments, creating something new, although I suppose it is cathartic in a Nietzschean way….. ‘Every art and every philosophy may be regarded as a healing… in that respect maybe.

Your poems are often (unsurprisingly) rather bleak, as they describe characters who have lost hope, who feel abused by the system, who don’t know where to turn. Do you hope the collection inspires people to see beyond the statistics and recognise the humanity of those seeking citizenship?

Yes that is exactly what I am hoping people will find in my poems – despite the bleakness, a celebration of humanity. My poetry contributes to the immigration debate; not by putting forward a set of arguments like I do in my letters to the Home Office, but by showing the humanity of people trapped in the system. Not every asylum seeker or refugee is a hero or angel. I have painted people as they are – with both frailties and resilience. We all have the same longings and desires to make something of our lives, it’s just that the people I see in our immigration surgery have a much tougher journey than most of us have ever had to bear.

You have a knack for finding humour in surprising places, for instance in your poem ‘Judgements’, which cleverly and comically portrays the bureaucracy behind judgements made on applications:

“… if the appellant claimed
that relevant matters did not happen I should not
exclude the possibility that they did not happen
(although believing that they probably did)”

Is humour an important part of poetry writing for you? And does it follow you into the workplace, and other aspects of your life?

Tragedy and comedy sit very close to each other. I’ve received so many misspelt letters…’I have been arrested by six uninformed guards’…with wormiest regards’‘I love your cuntry’!

Satire and the use of comedy is important in art. Slapstick and the absurd sharpen the truth of a situation. The most wildly improbable stories, can actually accentuate pathos and provide a break in the bleakness. Humour is also a great tool for showing up the absurdity and dysfunctionality of the Home Office which cruelly traps people without status and documents for years. It is the startling and unbelievable that is often true; whereas the predictable stories are most likely to be fabricated.

The Immigration Handbook was written over a number of years. Were these poems always destined to be released as a collection, or did the idea to publish these stories together come much later?

I always intended them to be a sequence of poems on the subject. I remember the night I started writing this collection. I filled a book with scrawling notes of incidents, characters and injustices. But it is one thing to have an idea for a poem, but then you have to wait for all the elements to come together and it often ends up going off in a completely different direction. Because I have so many stories fermenting in my head, unexpected elements mesh together.

Both my previous collections included sequences of poems. I’ve never been interested in writing a novel, but I love the opportunities presented by writing a number of individual poems that can work together and spark off each other to come at an idea from different angles and perspectives. Although I don’t write formally, the form of the poems are critical to me. I used to approach a sculpture from all angles as once.  I would use different materials and found objects set against each other to break up the surface, juxtaposing different textures. And I think I do the same with poems using different intensities; some highly worked, some quick ‘line drawings’, some found reports. The difference today is that I’m carrying my studio of scraps and fragments and found objects around in my head!

And finally, tell us about your plans for the future- where will we see your name next, and are there any festival or events appearances you can tell us about?

I had a great time reading at the Ledbury Festival earlier this summer and my book launch at the Nehru Centre in London was just fantastic – courtesy of the Indian High Commissioner! I have a whole series of readings lined up for the autumn in Cardiff, London, Aberystwyth and I’m doing a couple of Festivals in Bristol and Chorleywood as well as a special event with Waterstones in Berkhamsted for National Poetry Day.

I am really enjoying giving readings and talking about my book but already the restlessness to create and my dissatisfaction with the world as it is, is pushing me back to my writing desk. When I have lots of ideas in my head I find it distracting to read. Now The Immigration Handbook is out I’m reading as much as I can, going to lots of poetry events and every play that I can get tickets for.

17th September: Free Verse, The London Poetry Book Fair.
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rd October: Poetry Can Festival, Bristol.
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th October: National Poetry Day, Waterstones Berkhamsted, Herts.
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th October: Chorleywood LitFest, 12 noon The Junction, Chorleywood, Herts.
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th October: Lumen Poetry Series, 19:00 Tavistock Place, London.
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th October: Aberystwyth University, English & Creative Writing Society.
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th October: Waterstones Aberystwyth.
30th October: Cardiff Book Festival.
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th November: 19:30 Waterstones Piccadilly.

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Ritual, 1969 | An interview with Jo Mazelis

Ritual, 1969 Jo Mazelis interview

Our Marketing Officer Rosie Johns talks to Jo Mazelis about her new short story collection, Ritual, 1969, which is newly available.

Have you got a burning question of your own you would like to ask Jo? Or would you like your copy of Ritual, 1969 signed? If so, come to John Smith’s bookshop, Swansea, this Thursday for the book launch. This event is free to attend, all are welcome, and refreshments will be provided. Find more details here.

Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis

What are little girls made of? What will they become? Will they run away to the circus or become dressmakers, teachers or servants? From the playground to adulthood the path is beset with misunderstandings, missed dates and hidden traps for the unwary.
This darkly gothic collection of stories explores the unsettling borderland between reality and the supernatural. Ranging from early twentieth-century France to 1960s South Wales and contemporary Europe, Jo Mazelis’ singular vision and poetic language creates characters caught up in events and feelings they do not fully understand or control, giving the book its uncanny focus. Not all is as it seems in a world where first impressions may only conceal disguises and false trails – and there’s no going back.
A thrilling third collection from the author of Jerwood Award winning novel Significance.

Your novel Significance was set in France while many of the stories in Ritual, 1969 are located in Wales. As a Welsh writer, do you see any importance in the issues of place and identity?

I think with Significance it had to be set abroad because I wanted to explore ideas about escape and rebirth as a starting point. The same novel could, I suppose, have been set in a small coastal town in Wales, but it just wouldn’t have been the same – I mean in the sense of my imaginative process. It had to be in an unfamiliar territory, yet one that is perceived as innocent and safe.

The stories in Ritual, 1969 weren’t planned or written as a collection – therefore the fact that so many are set in Wales is probably due to my thinking and experiences over the last twelve years or so. This also raises the question of whether Welsh writers should only write about Wales and the Welsh. The MA I did many years ago was ‘Writing the Celtic Archipelago’ and involved a sort of comparative study of the 20th century literature of small nations; from Wales to Éire, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In one tutorial I raised the issue of Muriel Spark as she wasn’t included in the course and was firmly told that she was not a Scottish writer. The argument was that she didn’t write about Scotland or live there, which I have always found rather puzzling. Then very recently I read Ian Rankin’s introduction to Spark’s novel Symposium and his first words were, ‘Muriel Spark was the greatest Scottish novelist of modern times’.  He goes on to say that although she lived abroad, ‘her roots are evident in everything she wrote.’ Aside from feeling vindicated after almost twenty years, I think his words make clear something I have always believed, namely that my roots inform everything I write.

The period when these stories were written also coincides with my travelling all over Wales for a variety of reasons, so the landscape figures directly as a place of reality and imagination. I also made a sort of conscious effort to travel imaginatively through time, so that the stories are set in different periods as well as different locations.

Ritual, 1969 contains stories that are often given hauntingly uncertain endings. What made you choose to give the reader so much room for interpretation?
The writer Paul Auster said, ‘The one thing I do in all my books is to leave enough room in the prose for the reader to inhabit it’. I suppose I must do the same but unconsciously. Saying that it seems almost deliberately vague or evasive to attribute any aspect of writing to the unconscious because it suggests that what the writer is producing is a stream of consciousness or work that is unmediated or without art or craft, but this is my experience.

When I write I don’t think about any potential or ideal reader and very often I have no idea where a story is going. It is a process of discovery for me as much as for the reader. When I first began seriously writing stories in 1987 I had not studied literature or creative writing beyond GCSE as I had gone to Art College not university. I had however read a great deal, but I think because I was essentially self-taught, I tended to doubt myself and worried that ‘real’ writers would not work in the same way as me. ‘Real’ writers would have the whole thing mapped out and they wouldn’t rely on intuition or the unconscious. I later read something John Fowles said about his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman; how he had a recurring image during the autumn of 1966 of ‘A woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea’ and he explained that he wrote the book to discover her story. It was this and other things a broad range of writers said which made me realise I was not unique in my approach and that was reassuring.

It has often been my experience that I don’t notice the underlying themes of my stories until after publication. It is only then that my later university education in literature seems to kick in and I can begin to analyse my work more like an academic. I realise that very often my fiction can be read on two levels, one which is simply the plot and characters, and the other which is connected to philosophy, politics, myth and culture. So the story ‘A Bird Becomes a Stone’ could be read as a crime mystery. Actually it’s a story whose title I changed several times and the other titles were far more prosaic. At the point I changed the title for the third or fourth time I thought I was being almost flippantly artful, but later I realised that the new title with a living thing, a bird, changing into a dead thing, a stone actually was the key to the story’s meaning. This was not just in the sense that something dies, but it also speaks to the whole process of art – a bird carved out of a stone, or a film of a bird or a poem will outlive the bird itself. Does this mean that a carved representation is somehow more important than the living creature?

A similar question is evident below the surface in ‘The Flower Maker’ a story set during a period of war and turmoil concerning a displaced woman who makes and sells artificial flowers from scraps of silk and satin in order to survive. Art and what should be sacrificed for it emerges in story after story, whether it is poetry or circus performance or film or photography or novels. If the endings to my stories are enigmatic then perhaps it’s because I can’t and won’t answer that question.

There are many female characters who seem to be struggling for survival and against alienation throughout the collection. Did the diversity of female characters and experiences in these stories appear with a conscious plan in mind?
As with my other collections of short fiction, these stories were written over a fairly long period of time – some were created as far back as 2003, others as late as December 2015, so there was no guiding principle as such, no sense of any relationship between them in terms of a book. Penny Thomas, my editor at Seren was really helpful in selecting these from the rather larger group of stories I presented her with, thus helping the book to become a cohesive whole. I think the effect of this is that the stories speak to one another; though clearly I was also at different times experimenting with the idea of linked stories.

If these stories have a common theme then I think it might be that they expose gender as an artificial construct, so much so that it almost seems as if all of the female characters are ‘performing femininity’ rather that behaving naturally or instinctively. In this sense there is once again a dichotomy between the false and the real, the surface and what lies beneath; between art and nature, dreams and reality.

In my earlier short story collections Diving Girls and Circle Games there were far more stories about men and their particular perspectives  –  I was interested in ideas about patriarchy and men’s internalised view of their ‘natural’ superiority, so these characters were often white, middle-class Englishmen. Of course you can’t generalise about anyone on account of their gender, race, class or religion, and it was fairly hard to get inside the head of some of these male characters, especially at moments when they were acting badly, then performing mental tricks of self-justification, but these stories were an important aspect of my feminism because they interrogated power itself at a micro-level. Having said that I also wanted to interrogate or dispel some myths, for example those to do with a relationship between a lecturer and a student (who is over the age of eighteen) as I felt that such a relationship would not be simply about a predator and his victim. It seemed important that the female character has to have some degree of free will, that she is responsible for her own choices.  Just as he is.

I suppose in some ways I am exploring the limits of knowledge and how none of us can really understand how it feels to be someone else, or why people do the things they do whether for good or ill. In the story ‘Word Made Flesh’ which was commissioned by Wales Arts Review, a young Irish woman is never listened to. Because no one knows her tragic story she grows increasingly lonely and alienated and cannot sleep at night – so in this story it’s a case of important knowledge not withheld but ignored.

These themes about knowledge also appear in the stories about teenage girls and children, recurring again and again in different guises, whether it is a poem that never gets discussed, or the secrets and/or fantasies of many of the characters. It could be argued that a lot of these characters are trying to live their lives according to the wrong script – which is the case in ‘Whose Story Is This Anyway’ and ‘The Murder Stone’. One of the questions I am asking is, why are people so deceived and so enduringly self-deceiving? Why do so many women feel so self-conscious about their imperfections, so eager to construct their image based on artificial and/or idealised figures whether these are dolls or glamorous female celebrities?

The two epigraphs at the start of the book by William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft are there as lodestones to the stories’ meaning, but were added long after most of the stories were written.  One addresses the issue of corrupted beauty and nature, the other the issue of truth with particular regard to education and these themes are revisited in many of the stories.

Which character was the hardest to bring to life, and why?
Characters either come to life or they don’t. I tend not to think of them as separate entities from the story itself – they are woven in, creating a tapestry, rather than appliquéd on. Or perhaps instead of using a metaphor which employs a traditionally female art form I might say that the idea for a story appears in my mind like a block of marble. I chip away at it to reveal the figures and the narrative that is locked in the stone.

I wish I could give a simple answer to this question but after writing fiction for so long I have acquired something I learned about via Flannery O’Connor, namely ‘the habit of art’. I began to read the stories of Flannery O’Connor in 1975, then in 1988, when I began to steadfastly write, I bought ‘Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose’ which is a collection of her non-fiction work. O’Connor has been a huge and enduring influence on my short stories making me wonder some time ago if the notion of Southern Gothic couldn’t be extended to absorb Southern Welsh Gothic. Strangely, many years ago I bought a rare hardcover 1st edition of a Flannery O’Connor novel for 50p. I was exceedingly poor for many years, in debt and fear and worry constantly which is a miserable way to live. Then in an idle moment I looked up the value of this particular O’Connor novel and found it was worth a lot of money – I had a brief and dizzy moment of thinking that Flannery had saved me, that this was fate that it was her book not any other. There was only one problem, the copy I possessed had no dust jacket and this meant it was virtually worthless. So if there is a lesson to be learned from that it is that an author’s worth is in their words, not in any abstract artefact. Though the story might have had a more rewarding and uncanny ending had I sold the book for thousands.

To return to the question, I think if a character fails to come to life then the story is a failure and I abandon it. I’ve got a lot of abandoned stories; some might be worthy of resuscitation, others are beyond hope. I think the cause of the half-written stories is usually lack of time – I find I can’t begin a story then pick up the thread weeks later, the original impulse or train of thought has gone. Sometimes a story will just emerge fully formed and my pen can barely keep pace with my mind – but that is a fairly rare occurrence and it hasn’t happened for a couple of years.

One of the recurring themes in this collection seems to be the idea that the journey towards womanhood is fractured and complicated. Where did your focus on this theme stem from?
This is complicated – in part it was due to the fact I was researching the late sixties and early seventies for another novel. This research was focused on the general history of the period but also specifically Swansea where I grew up. I have also been working on several autobiographical pieces for years now, though nothing so organised as a full length book, though I did at one point think about putting all of these together and calling it ‘Experiments in Autobiography: a Sampler’. One of these memoir pieces was published in New Welsh Review in 2015 as ‘The Girl in Red Boots’ – other pieces have appeared in non-fiction anthologies published by Honno, Parthian and Pandora, and in the online journal, Wales Arts Review.

One of these pieces was about an unforgettable and terrible event that occurred in the early seventies. This was brought vividly back to life in 2003 when the identity of a serial killer who murdered three girls in the Swansea area was discovered using DNA. I had been at the same nightclub on the same Saturday as the murdered girls. My friend and I were a similar age; we were probably dressed in similar clothes, may have danced next to those girls. I always think it could have been me and my friend – we were just lucky, unlike them.

Because of this autobiographical writing I was thinking very deeply about the 60s and 70s time the news broke about Jimmy Savile and his crimes. I think it is almost impossible to make people understand how very different things were up until the 1990s. Indeed it was hard for me to remember or perhaps trust my memory about the period: during my research I found that news stories in the local and national papers that were quite mind-boggling; there was a man who had battered his wife to death who was given a suspended sentence from a sympathetic judge because it was said the woman nagged him, while a young man was sent to prison for two years for possession of a very trifling amount of cannabis, and in a report about a school teacher having a relationship with one of his pupils the girl was referred to as a ‘Lolita’, the implication being that this teenager had tempted a ‘good and respectable family man’.

The other source for a lot of the 1969 stories were several books by Peter and Iona Opie which confirmed everything I remembered about The Levitation Game but also rhymes and games I had forgotten. From them I found the quite remarkable fact that The Levitation Game was first recorded in the seventeenth century. These games, and the lore of the playground, were passed on through generations of children, were not part of the taught curriculum and are for the most part left behind in childhood. I think, though it’s hard to be certain, that finally, under pressure from health and safety, television, smart phones and the greatly curtailed freedom of children to ‘go out and play’ they are now disappearing.

I think as a woman it is easier for me to understand how female lives can be fragmented, but that doesn’t mean that men’s aren’t also – or at least some men’s. I certainly found my early life to be difficult, both at home, at school and at Art College aged eighteen – the last of these was probably the worst but perhaps only because everything that happened before came to a head at that point. So at nineteen, after one year of college, my education stopped and I worked for years and years in a variety of low paid jobs as a waitress, chambermaid, shop assistant, barmaid and library assistant. I had no sense of any future, hardly any useful qualifications, no A levels, no confidence, seemingly no hope. I had also lived through a variety of personal tragedies, terrible experiences and other disturbing and often inexplicable events. So the idea of a fragmented life is very familiar to me.

You can purchase your copy of Ritual, 1969 direct from our website, or get your copy at the John Smith’s launch event, 21 April, 12:00-2:00pm.

 

 

An Interview with Helen Blackhurst

We had a chat with Helen Blackhurst about her debut novel, Swimming on Dry Land.

Helen lives in rural Ireland and works as a drama therapist.  Her first novel, Swimming on Dry Land, was born out of a period of residency in Australia.  Helen’s passion for the Australian landscape has inspired her writing ever since.  Her second novel, A Time of Rainfish, is set in a fictional town in Arnhemland, Northern Territory, where Helen has made several research trips, at one point working on a short project with a group of Aboriginal women. Helen has facilitated a range of writer-in-community projects, exploring writing from various perspectives, including sound, image, movement, and voice. Site to Sound (2009) and Forgetmenot (2008), both community arts projects, were supported by the Arts Council of Ireland. 

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Set in a small fictional mining town in south-west Australia, Monica Harvey, a twelve-year-old English girl, is looking for her younger sister, Georgie.  The Harvey family has recently moved to Akarula, having been persuaded to set out in search of a new life by their rich Uncle Eddie, who owns the town.  Monica discovers Georgie down one of the disused mine shafts but when she returns later that day with her father and Uncle Eddie, Georgie has disappeared.   

It becomes clear that Georgie’s is not the first disappearance in the town. Eddie, a self-made money-man – a dreamer whose main concern is to save his beloved town – has thus far concealed the disappearances from his brother, Michael. But as the search for Georgie widens, the pressure intensifies and Eddie’s dream-like vision of his town gradually implodes. Mr M, the only aborigine left in Akarula, sees it all from his seat under the town’s single tree, giving rise to local superstition and fears.

As the history of the land unfolds new possibilities and answers to the mysterious disappearances slowly suggest themselves.

Both Swimming on Dry Land and your second novel, A Time of Rainfish, are heavily influenced by the time you spent living in Australia. What is it about Australia that so captivates you?

The landscape – the vast emptiness you get from driving through the middle, the beauty of the country as a whole, all those amazing creatures. And being on the food chain really puts you in your place. I love that; it gives you a sense of awe which is hard to come by in Europe. I’m also fascinated by Australian history.

The town Swimming on Dry Land is set in is fictional. Why did you decide to use a fictional setting rather than a real one?

Akarula is a patchwork of places I passed through or spent time in whilst in Australia. Fictionalising the setting gave me the freedom to create what I needed for the town without being constrained by the reality of a real one.

You get into the heads of several characters throughout Swimming on Dry Land. Which character did you find the most difficult to write? Which character was the easiest?

Monica came to me first. I considered writing the whole story from her perspective. In some ways, she was the easiest. I think Caroline probably took me the longest to get to know.

Are there any other countries you’d like to explore in your fiction? Have you ever considered writing a novel set in Ireland, for example?

There are many countries I’d like to explore, but for the moment I seem locked into Australia. I suspect that if I moved to Australia, I’d start writing about Ireland. There is something in the distance – time, space, culture – that allows for that outside eye, a sharpening of the senses, a feeling that anything is possible. Familiarity seems to flatten all that for me. Of course I am still a foreigner in Ireland, though it feels like home.

Finally, what’s the best book you’ve so far read this year?

I’ve read many great books this year. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I’ve just finished, was really hard to put down – always a good sign.

Order Swimming on Dry Land from our website.

An Interview with Mary-Ann Constantine

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We had a chat with Mary-Ann Constantine about her debut novel, Star-Shot, which is out today!

Mary-Ann Constantine studies Romantic period literature, with an emphasis on Wales and Brittany, at Aberystwyth University and has published widely in these fields since 1996. Her short stories have appeared over a number of years in New Welsh Review and Planet and her first collection, The Breathing, was published by Planet in 2008. Her second collection, All the Souls, was published by Seren in 2013. Star-Shot is her first novel.

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Part fable, part mystery, Star-Shot is a stylish debut novel set in and around Cardiff’s National Museum in a time that is almost, but not quite, our own. As their paths cross in a circumscribed world of benches, parks and galleries, a handful of characters reveal their stories of obsession, loss and recovery, creating a fragile network of relationships which will help to resist the inexorable channels of silence eating into the city. 

A brittle young woman sits on a bench in Gorsedd park, conscious of the powerful building behind her; a tall man carries a box full of a strange organic substance up the entrance steps; a young father explains the formation of stars to his tiny son.  As university researchers try to map and understand  the destructive silence snaking around them, it becomes clear that the linked lives of these and other marginal characters offer ways of countering its effects. Poignant and humorous, Star-Shot is an exploration of how objects and images can focus our grief and desire; it is also a meditation on the regenerative power of garden ponds, and the cosmic significance of frogs.

Was it your intention from the beginning to write a story in which Cardiff’s National Museum plays such a huge part, or did the museum gradually seep into the story while you were writing?

I think it was there as a physical presence from the beginning. The image I couldn’t get out of my head was the first one, of the girl on the bench with a building behind her. Once I realized which building it was, I knew it would be a central character.

Magical realism is a very divisive term. Would you describe your work as magical realism and, if so, what is it that draws you to the genre?

Why is it divisive? Like ‘sci-fi’? Not proper literature? I like stories where odd things happen; and I like fiction that doesn’t completely opt for one side or the other along a border you could loosely call realism. I’ve always liked the work of the Portuguese writer José Saramago and the Italian writer Italo Calvino. They introduce ‘impossibilities’ into everyday life and then – sometimes ruthlessly, far more ruthlessly than I could ever do – see them through. You can read the impossible elements allegorically, metaphorically, but they have to be convincing in the world of the novel or story itself.  

Throughout Star-Shot we follow several different characters. Were any of them particularly difficult, or particularly easy, to write?

I have no idea why this happened, but they all just appeared, one at a time, and started talking to each other; and I took an instant liking to them. I’ve not written anything this long before (and yes, I know, it’s pretty short for a novel), but the only other sustained narrative involving a clutch of characters was ‘The Collectors’ in All the Souls, and I had to fight them the whole time – I found them all, in their different ways, unpleasant or failing in some way. This lot (and they really aren’t based on people I know, either, which makes the whole thing even stranger) seemed extremely sympathetic. Even the Professor figure and Luke, both of whom started off as slightly caricatured secondary characters, turned out to have hidden depths. I was worried that the absence of what my kids call ‘bad guys’ might make the story rather insipid. Hope not.    

Which skills that you learned from writing short fiction helped you to write longer fiction, and which skills, if any, were more of a hindrance?

I found it a very different process. Stories work round a central image or kernel – and that was what I assumed the girl-on-the-bench-and-building was for a long time. I had the final scene clear in my head too. I was surprised when the distance between them turned out to be not a few hundred words but several thousand. The scenes kept unrolling, short and cinematic. Once I knew who was in them it was a matter of listening in to conversations, and the writing came much more easily than usual.

Finally, what’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

Tricky; I tend to get absorbed in whatever I’m reading at the time – and I hate ‘best’. But I think possibly the hugely powerful, dark and weird Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson; and two crystal-clear collections by Tove Jansson, The Winter Book and The Summer Book. Perhaps the most important book, though, was Naomi Klein’s discussion of climate change, This Changes Everything.

Don’t forget to enter our competition for a chance to win a signed copy of Star-Shot!

Order Star-Shot from our website.

An Interview with Anne Lauppe-Dunbar

We had a chat with Anne Lauppe-Dunbar about her debut novel, Dark Mermaids, which is out today!

Anne Lauppe-Dunbar is a Creative Writing tutor at Swansea University, where she also studied for her PhD. She had a short story published in Sing Sorrow Sorrow (ed. Gwen Davies) and has had stories, essays, papers and poems published with Cinnamon Press, Seventh Quarry and New Welsh Review. Dark Mermaids is her first novel.

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A shocking story of the horrors of a political system that doped its youngsters to sporting superhero status, and then left them to fend for themselves. Shortlisted for the Impress and Cinnamon First Novel Prize, this East German noir thriller is set in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Unhappy West Berlin police officer Sophia is called on to investigate the murder of her childhood friend Kathe, after her beaten body is discovered in Sophia’s local park. Sophia is forced to return to the hometown she fled as a teenager with her enigmatic father Petrus, and Mia – a frightened child who turned up on her doorstep. She must investigate Kathe’s murder and care for a mother she believed abandoned her. As she reluctantly delves into the sordid Stasi secrets of those she grew up with, Sophia uncovers a web of horrors about her own abusive past as a child-swimming star in the former GDR. But her hunt for the truth has not gone unnoticed by those close to her, people who still have too much to hide.

How did you become so interested in the East German doping scandal? What about it compelled you to write?

I was researching my mother’s family in the former GDR. The family were wealthy but lost everything under the communist regime. My mother managed cross over the border over ‘no man’s land’ in 1949. I was looking at maps when I stumbled across something called ‘Complex 08’, and clicked on the link to reveal a monster named ‘State Theme 14.25’. The more I read, the more complex and vile a beast I saw. I knew then I simply had to write about the GDR Doping Scam Theme 14.25. But I needed a fictitious angle, a way in which to tell the story, and that’s when I created Sophia and Mia because I wanted more than a hunt for clues. I wanted a story about a woman finding out who she was by going back and claiming her true self.

You must have done a lot of research while writing the novel. Did you ever worry that it was going to turn into non-fiction or did you achieve a healthy balance of fact and fiction from an early stage of the writing process?

I became completely obsessed with detail and research. I have boxes of Stasi files ordered from the Ungeleider Archive in the University of Austin, Texas. Fascinating reading, as they list the drugs given to each athlete, the side effects, the results. I found myself absorbed reading about clandestine meetings between informers, doping doctors, sport coaches and the Stasi. My knowledge of medicine is basic, so I read up on what steroids might do, how, why, and what were the worst scenarios – all proven by further reading and research: bones not holding muscle, liver failure, children born with clubbed feet, reminiscent of the thalidomide horror, former athletes in pain from chronic muscle fatigue, sex changes. The more I read, the more I had to write.

I went to Berlin and walked around the area where I wanted Sophia to live, so that I could really know her. I drew from my research into my mother’s East German home town and wove the story around solid fact. I tried to speak with former athletes and found silence. Finally I was permitted to visit Kienbaum, a sports training camp outside Berlin. Here I began to live my protagonist’s life. I have never been as electrified by research as I was over those three days. I wrote and found myself entering Sophia’s mind, her broken heart, her longing for escape and something other than the sum of swimming, drugs, sex, winning.

I fixated on how a swimmer would swim. How she might be the water, and become a thing that lived inside water – a mermaid, fierce, loyal to a fault, yet mistrusting. All of the research, the mermaids, the Stasi meetings, how to move hands to swim faster, how to breathe, stopped narrative flow. All those careful (utterly precious) lists I’d thought vital, were boggy research, not needed. So I had to let it go. Gillian Slovo told a group of us, at a long ago Cheltenham Literary festival, how research must be a gossamer curtain, so pale it can hardly be seen, yet key to the landscape of the novel. Stevie Davies put it in a nutshell: ‘Mermaids are secondary. Narrative is primary’.

Nowadays there are so many more women – authors and characters – in the crime/thriller genre, from Kate Atkinson to Gillian Flynn to our very own Jo Mazelis. What is it that attracted you to the genre? 

I love thrillers that grab you by the throat and don’t let go, yet far better are those rare thrillers that do all of that, but so much more. They teach you something about a specialized world, or portion of history. Take Boyd’s novel Restless. A book that uncovers a past we would never dream of. Fiction? Thriller? Yes, but so much more. In every spy story, every thriller, then is an element of truth. From Larsson’s, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code. All stories create (to a greater or lesser extent) a believability through their characters quest for truth, riches, revenge. I loved having the freedom to write about something dark. A Minotaur lurking is frightening, ugly, yet so beautiful. The hardest thing I found was to write Sophia’s truth, not to focus on a thriller that withheld every reveal to a pre-plotted reveal. The trend now is for plot to be a frontal device. I knew if I manipulated Sophia to perform in a pre-plotted narrative I would have a puppet, not true character (like each one of us) who is a complexity of contradiction. I followed, allowing her to find and search. To anguish over things half remembered, to fall in love with a child when she was unable to love herself. I think this was the hardest of things, as the idea of a literary historical/thriller is difficult to sell.

Were you wary of writing about an unhappy police officer in a genre that seems to be brimming with miserable detectives? What is it about Sophia that made you want to tell her story?

I was in Berlin to see a screening of Katharina Bullin, ‘And I Thought I was The Greatest’, followed by a panel of German experts on doping and the court case the athletes brought against the state that harmed them. The film was about a former GDR volleyball player. Katharina was there. As the audience fired rapid questions at a panel after the viewing, I watched her. How she sat, moved, whispered to her companion: the film maker and director Marcus Welsch. She wore a flat felt cap, pale blue with a brim. Her clothes were army fatigues – dark soft green. Men’s clothes. She was tall, built like a man, gentle and rough at the same time. We went for a beer. Katharina refused to speak with me, even though Marcus introduced us, and then I had her – my character. Sophia is fragmented by her past. If that means she is miserable, so be it. She’d been taught to be grateful for a chance to be noticed, trained, and fed with fresh produce – hard to get in the GDR. Her parents would have had a car, a TV, holidays that not many were permitted. She had to be tough. Perfect. A winner. And then the people who’d made her turned their backs on her and would have preferred if she’d died. Getting her to open up was hard. The more I wrote her, the more enigmatic she became, until I couldn’t see her. She was, I realized later, a version of me. Difficult, at times. A perfectionist, a loner who needed people but was never truly easy in her own skin. I had to find her again, and I did this by allowing Mia into her life, and by allowing Sophia to recognize and let slip that she did care, feel pain and longing, even though she does her best to pretend she does not. By allowing her to be broken, a woman who lives only a portion of her life in the real world; I give her the possibility joy, a chance at living inside her skin and feeling her way into a new future.

What will you be working on next?

I am writing a novel, a thriller if you like, about Hitler’s ‘tears of the wolf diamonds’ and the child terrorists he named Werewolves. A German musician is searching for these diamonds in Germany, as he has (supposedly) been able to decode the music sheet on which the runic signs tell where these diamonds are hidden. My story is in two timelines. Aachen 2015; the city in which the Mayor (post WW2) was assassinated by a group of young werewolves. The second story line is set in April 1945 as the Russians and Americans began their assault near the Elbe into what would become the GDR. There are two protagonists. Kat is thirteen when her mother is raped and murdered by Russian soldiers. Sasha is twenty-five and living in the shadow of her own mother’s death. Both deaths are linked to the diamonds and the werewolf movement.

Finally, what’s the best book you’ve read so far this year? We’re always on the lookout for recommendations!

Anna Funder, All That I Am
Douglas Botting, In The Ruins Of The Reich
Murial Spark, Loitering With Intent
Stevie Davies, Awakening
Petra Hammesfahr, Die Mutter
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Books I love:
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
Anna Applebaum, The Gulag
Mark Roseman, The Past In Hiding
Steven Ungerleider, Faust’s Gold
Kristin Carshore, Bitterblue
Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
And many many more…

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