Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Above the Parapet : a Talk with Short Story Writer Alison Lock

Welcome Alison! Your short story collection opens with a brother-sister rivalry taking place as the earth threatens to overturn their trivial concerns. Many of your stories also suggest the aftermath of a cataclysm, or are peopled with a world of survivors. Do you think we don’t listen to the planet enough?

Thank you Catherine—it is lovely to have the opportunity to tell about my writing. To answer your first queston - yes, I suppose I do think that.  We are all reliant on this planet and therefore it is important that we look after it, although I suspect that it will survive whatever we throw at it but it just might last a little longer if give it some TLC.

You also use magic, history and pluck to take the reader far beyond a comfortable contemporary framework. Tell us about your writing process – what comes to you first and where do you aim to take the reader?

Many of the stories are triggered by tiny moments, episodes, observances, but some are from larger events; catastrophes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcano eruptions – things that make us ask: what would I do in that situation? Of course, if we were there, there would be very little we could do, and often people or nations do not have the resources to deal effectively with unexpected events, or even events that they know are likely to happen. Some of the fictional outcomes are down to the individual characters, like in 'Bugs' where Aunty Vi is the only adult who understands why Katy loves to play with worms and bugs.  It is the other adults who are not in tune with the natural world or the world of the child.  In the end it is Katy who has the last laugh. As for taking the reader somewhere -  I believe that the reader brings as much to a story as the writer, and that it is the connection that matters. It's all about resonance.

Tell us about the ideas behind the underground setting for your dystopian story ‘Erthenta’.

Erthenta was one of the first stories I wrote to be set in an underground world. The planet has been knocked by a series of meteor showers and has been knocked off its axis. The survivors have resorted to living under the surface in the caves and tunnels but they have to constantly maintain their environment as well as find food. The most useful creatures for nutritional and practical purposes are the Carcomites – a bug that is also poisonous. Also, the population has been unable to reproduce for a generation and Elsina is the first to become pregnant. She believes that the best way of helping her baby to survive is to take it to the centre of the Earth where it will receive a special blessing. It is one of the stories that is set in an extreme world and uses the medium of fantasy to explore and create the story. 

Several of the stories are prize-winners – how did you select which pieces to include in the collection?

This is my first collection of short stories and I decided that rather than give it a thematic overview I would use it as a showcase for my writing, which is why, although it has some very distinct themes,  it is also eclectic. I write poetry as well as prose and it is the use and combination of words that attract me most to the process of writing. Also, I like to look at ideas from different points of view, I don't just mean first person or third person but I like to try out second person too, and also to create a story within a different genre. There are so many exciting tools to use! I now find that I am often writing fantasy and futuristic stories because I can explore themes without the 'restrictions' of realism. I want my readers to let go too and enjoy the ride.

Your first book was a poetry collection and your language is clearly lyrical. Why the shift from poetry to short stories, and where do you feel most comfortable?

Strange as it sounds, I feel that poetry and short stories come from different places: whether it is from the body or from the mind – I'm not sure which—but often I know fairly soon into a new piece if it is going to be a poem or a short story by the way it feels. I now also write very short fiction – often called flash fiction. This is a great way to create an illusion or a sudden tension. 

How does social media affect your life as a writer? What role do you think social media should play in the life of a published author?

Social media is great on one level – when you work on your own it is wonderful to be able to discuss things with others who are also writing away in their attics, or, to swap ideas, or to pass on information via facebook, twitter or blogs. With an independent publisher the onus is mainly on the writer to promote their work, and hence, social media has become a necessity.  We write about ourselves and our writing and hope that people will be interested enough to buy our books! 

What plans do you have for the future? And what advice would you give to a short story writer trying to have a collection published?

The future for me is full of words. I am presently rehearsing a long piece of poetry and music which is a collaboration with musician Robin Bowles. We worked together on my 'eye of the heron' piece for the Holmfirth Arts Festival. It's here recorded on soundcloud. Do give it a click.
I love the coincidence of sound—the spoken word to music. I am still writing short stories too – I love the feeling you get when one is finished—like holding a sculpted ornament in the palm of your hand. I am also writing a novel for young people which is in the editing stages, and I also hope to publish another poetry collection.  I've had many single poems published that I would like to gather together – its a bit like signing off at the end of a letter – pressing your poems like flowers between the covers, preserving them and sealing them with a kiss.  

Who would you say has been your main influences and what are you reading now?

I have just finished reading David Vann's Life of a Suicide – an extraordinary book that deals with the deeper darker emotions in a very illuminating and descriptive way. I admire his work and came across him recently at a masterclass where his enthusiasm was utterly contagious.  I also constantly read poetry by a whole range of contemporary poets. 

Excerpt from Alison's story 'Erthenta'

Only those who dwell in caves can really understand. When the surface is a barren dry desert and the sun burns on and on, there is nowhere else to go. The caves becomes your world, your home, your street, your back yard; your life. No darkness enters from above; there is none, not since the final spin of the Earth on its axis nearly a century before. This is the place they call Erthenta. Once you experience the lure of the silence, the calling of the calm, the cool air caressing the flesh of your face, you will never again want to resurface. 

Elsina has lived here for twenty year-longs. The dark soil and shadowed rock beneath the burnt crust of Earth is her homeland. She ventures to the surface only long enough to seek out the scorched creatures that provide the community with a little cooked protein. At least there is a steady supply of water in the under layer where the streams ooze from the mountains of ice on the other side of the planet. Channelled, there is enough to quench the thirst of all Erthentans before it is evaporated by the surface heat, turning liquid to steam. Special midway caves have been set aside for the steam rooms where people can go after their day’s labours to sink their weary flesh into the vivifying banks of mud, to cleanse in the rich mineral pools and sup from the pure springs. 

They all believe their true home, the place of their origin, is at the centre of the Earth. It is a place they all aspire to visit at least once in their lives, to meditate at the holy shrine of Shala, to relieve their troubles, to submit their prayers, to feel the embrace of the inner void. But the path to the centre is known to be hazardous, crumbling with every rumble, splitting with each quake of the endlessly shifting tectonic plates.

Above the Parapet has had great reviews from Sabotage Reviews and Puffin Reviews and can be bought directly from the publisher or from the usual suspects! 

Monday, 2 December 2013

On Sleeping with Your Manuscript

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
Annie Dillard

This writer, who is busy muscling her way through a new series of short stories, is feeling the rub. How mischievous is the mind! One ecstatic moment the story seems a shimmering equilibrium, the next it seems like a dumping ground for word waste. How to manage the rollercoaster, I do not know. There must be inbuilt filters in the artist's mind: this is trash; this is glorious!

I don't usually read writing manuals, mainly because I'm afraid that the few ideas I have will, er, be upended and I will go scuttling back to base. But these words of advice featured on the astute Brain Pickings blog are ringing a clear bell.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

How true is this? How jumbled and hopeful you are at the outset with your bundle of words and a hot drink, then becoming more sure-footed as events, tone and language take hold. But how fearfully one sets out, placing every word painfully, terrified of going off upon an irrelevant tangent, a track that is meaningless. And then your muddy footprints are so evident at the head of the page. Do you cover your tracks? Have you reached the box canyon? Are you able to jettison your soft and careless beginnings and slide into the body of the work?

Dear Catherine, 
Writing is subtraction.

Interestingly, Brain Pickings highlights Dillard's two editing scenarios. Edit-as-you-go, or let your words unbundle, identify what their shape might be, and prune sharply. I'm an edit-as-you-go freak, especially with the short story where each word must earn its keep and, in being discovered and employed, propel the story to its resolution. I cannot write in a blindman's flurry at all - it just becomes catastrophic, a writing orgy, like my daughter's room on a Friday night. I'll get everything in my wardrobe out and wear it every which way.

I'll leave you with some parting words from Joan Didion,

I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. 

I love this one. Call me silly but I've always slept with my manuscript next to my head.

Monday, 18 November 2013

My Writer Crush on Simon Van Booy

Already the title is beguiling, a book you have to have. Love Begins in Winter. Who can resist a title like that, a lead story about a cellist, now that the skies are closing in, the grass is always wet, swept with leaves falling before you.

Then to read the words of this reviewer.. If F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marguerite Duras had had a son, he would be Simon Van Booy....(Andre Dubus III) How can you resist?

Walter's Journey Through the Rain

Walter wheeled his hot, ticking motorbike up and down the muddy lane, breathing with the rhythm of a small, determined engine. Fists of breath hovered and then opened over each taken-step. He would soon be within sight of his beloved's house. In the far distance, Sunday parked over the village like an old mute who hid his face in the hanging thick of clouds. The afternoon had seen heavy rain and the fields were soft.

Now. Don't think if you're unfamiliar with Van Booy's work that these lovey-dovey titles are written by a man who eats quiche. Van Booy's interests are isolation, the return from grief, hallowed moments involving birds and ticking bicycles and the beauty of stones. His stories are sometimes cinematic, which I don't normally like, but he includes an emptiness and silence that must be furnished by the reader. Coastlines, the smashing sea, the cold and wet.

And of course love. Which twists and shoots and expands.

From my pocket I took a large stone and set it squarely in his open hand. If there is such a thing as marriage, it takes place long before the ceremony: in a car on the way to the airport; or as a gray bedroom fills with dawn, one love watching the other; or as two strangers stand together in the rain with no bus in sight, arms weighed down with shopping bags. You don't know then. But later you realise - that was the moment.
And always without words.
Language is like looking at a map of somewhere. Love is living and surviving on the land.

(from Love Begins in Winter)

I am not sure that I can bear the wash of deep pain and love woven through Van Booy's stories and their particularly slow strain of grace. Artfully, he teaches us how to immerse ourselves in the long short story and those who say that the short story lacks substance, leaves you suspended, would do well to walk awhile with Mr. Van Booy.

A child who bites like a tiger, who grows up to become a paediatrician. A birdman in a park is not the long lost brother a woman imagines. A man marooned in a wet windy city finds he has a Nordic daughter and leaves everything. A young man sobs in St. Peter's Square in Rome, in a story that moves back to a crass gondola trip in Las Vegas. Memories are stirred; lives are tugged out of shape. Deservedly, Simon Van Booy won the Frank O'Connor prize in 2009. I've just ordered two more books.

When I awoke, Brian was gazing down off the side of the rock into a deep pool. His bare back was a field of bronze muscle. I had forgotten his male strength. It was late afternoon. The sky had bruised. There was a wind and the trees shook. Wind is the strangest thing. The word describes a phenomenon.  (from Tiger, Tiger)

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The other day I found myself sandwiched between Stieg Larsson and Alice Munro

The other day I found myself sandwiched between Stieg Larsson and Alice Munro. I was very uncomfortable! 

I don't imagine these things happen very often, or in real life. Journalist and writer Sandra Danby kindly reviewed one of the stories in 'Pelt and Other Stories', called 'At the Malga'. Before me came Stieg Larsson. After, none other than Alice Munro. Who said anything about squirming?

"At the Malga, a charming story of juxtapositions. Past/present, snow/sun, winter/summer, husband/stranger. An encounter between two strangers, left behind at an Alpine hotel by their fitter companions; one is tired, the other injured. They walk towards a malga, a walk that may lead to more than cheese.
There is a wonderful sensuousness about their companionship. They pass a lake."

Veronique had never paused here this long, except to loosen her neck scarf or apply sunblock. But now she felt an urge to wade into the rippled surface, feeling her bare feet fitting over the round stones and the chill delineation rising along her thighs. She wondered what would happen if she were to shed her clothes before poor Heinrik here, and proceed into the water.

Some time later I found myself in Plymouth by the English sea, in a university lecture theatre, reading from this story, published in the visual and literary fiesta, Short Fiction 

M O N T G O M E R Y  A K U O F O,  F A T H E R  O F  T W I N S

He was sitting at an empty chop bar on the roadside, waiting for the French woman’s green car. He took out the mobile phone she had bought him. Just this morning, Faustina had called from the village and told him she was expecting twins, his twins. They are two boys, she had said with much enthusiasm. Twins had not visited their village for an age. He put the phone back in his pocket. The French woman drove past and he saw her son was not in the car. That was as good a sign as any.

By the time he reached her flat the woman had opened the door on the rooftop and unbottled the hot air in the rooms. He could feel the air shifting about, its hotness dusting his skin before it made its
escape. He heard her in the shower. He stripped off his shirt and ate a banana in the kitchen. Then he opened a cold beer from her fridge, sitting on her kitchen chair, his spirits mixed. He had stolen from her, just once. It was a photograph of her family which was sitting on the bookshelf. The daughter in Europe when she was a small girl, the hard-faced son a baby on her hip. She had asked him for it and he had lied. He had kept the photo for a while then thrown it in the gutter.

Montgomery, you’re here. She glanced at him sitting there, her eyes moving off his body. I should have called you. Miguel is on his way home with a friend. They stayed for a football match. I can’t see you now.

His hands hung either side of the chair. He felt his cock beginning to thicken in his jeans.

Look, you’d better get dressed. Don’t be angry with me. You know there’ll be other times.

Outside, yards below them, she frowned as the gate was cranked open. He lazily pulled on his shirt. On his way downstairs he passed a pair of giggling white ten-year-olds.

He walked back to Kojo’s house. He was glad he had drunken the beer. He thought of how the French woman spoke to Miguel in her language, sending him downstairs to play with the neighbourhood kids, something the whites rarely did. He couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a man of her own and he had asked her and she had tried to explain it to him. I loved a man very much, but he didn’t want to live with me. I loved another and he used to hit me hard. When she whimpered, he held her, stroked her, trying to imagine these men’s faces.

Kojo’s brother was sick in the hospital and Kojo had to bring him food. Montgomery sat down, pulled out his phone. There were no calls. The French woman put credit on his phone but she did not give him cash. Just once, she had paid his bus fare back to the village. He called her.


This is Montgomery.

Er, hello. Is there anything wrong?

Come and meet me for a drink.

You know I can’t. Not tonight.

My girlfriend is pregnant. The girl from the village. She is having twins.

Oh, Montgomery! That’s quite a piece of news. Are you upset? I hope she is well. I don’t know what to say to you. I have to go now. I’m really sorry, try to understand.

I love you, Mona.

Yes, Montgomery. Yes.

He was hungry. He had shown her where they grilled tilapia and served it with banku. He had shown her where they served atcheke from Ivory Coast. He had taken her to Circle at night and made her bump next to him on the dance floor. They had eaten at Honest Chef afterwards and she moved his hand between her legs in the taxi all the way home. If she were younger, he would give her a baby.

He left Kojo’s and began to walk towards Rawlings Park. He would get there after nightfall. There his old aunt would feed him.

Faustina called him again in the morning.

Monty Monty Monty, oh my Montgomery. How is your work? she asked him. He knew she was sitting in a booth in the tiny communications centre in the sun, sweat down her back, her wide eyes far apart. Faustina was an easy woman to have, she opened wide and her passage clasped him, pulling him hard. Then she pushed him off, her hair sticking up, her waistbeads slack, she always went to piss and he heard her. After that he liked to put his fingers deep in her wet bush and she
crooned and grunted. He used to work for the Indians, moving boxes of stereo players from one shop to another, being told to step aside for Sanjay when he came in with his driver from his big house on the new estate. But they had sent him on weeks ago.

My work is fine, he said to her.


And what?

Your sons!

I don’t know anything about these sons. How do I know they are mine? he said sorely. His aunt had given him pito to drink last night.

Don’t be so foolish, she said and cut the line.

He took some money from his aunt and walked through Rawlings Park. He set out to the trotro stop for Labadi Beach and soon enough pushed onto a revving bus. As the vehicle tore along Ring Road and some older ladies from Nungua began calling out to the driver to slow down, he knew inside of him the twins were his own. Faustina said she had a tummy now, that you could see it was growing fast. She even felt them turning, squabbling, somersaulting like two small barracuda fish at sea. He jumped off at the beach and walked through the parking lot. He bought a beer at one of the bars, sitting down on a flaky white chair. He looked at his phone again. There were no calls.

He watched the waves slapping on the sand, each one slightly different from the last. One fatter, one thin and dribbling at the top, then a rush of three at once. The water was grey and thin like soup with no wele in it. He saw his sons’ faces swimming inside of Faustina’s fat stomach with its belly button thick and yellow and turned out. He would have go back to the village and buy things for her. A basket for the little ones. Cloth for the naming ceremony. Minerals and money for the priest. Sanjay never gave him his last pay. But now he was ashamed to go back to the Indians. The Indians with their stereo sets in boxes, their fans with plastic bags over their tin basket heads, who had sent him on because there had never been any need for him in the first place, just to move aside when Sanjay came in with the driver, to check for thieves from the market, to move the boxes and fans from shop to shop or back inside at night.

The French woman had told him many times over that her daughter Nathalie was a photographer in Paris. She had shown him black and white photos. They were of people staring back at her, people with long lives, old women in stuffed chairs, a man on a ladder. There was a woman in a park with a needle in her arm, her eyes black and lost and a dog waiting by her dirty feet. Her nipples pushed up through her T-shirt. A tree swept over her and a man glanced back but was already walking onwards to the apartment blocks after the fence. Mona was so proud of this shot. She said it had won a prize. But it left Montgomery in despair. Why hadn’t Nathalie called the hospital? Why was the woman outside in the cold with the waiting dog? Why was the man walking past to the buildings on the other side? Mona had showed him other shots of men who were not men. His heart quickened when she showed him these. They were men with shaven heads with kohl around their eyes. Men in a bar grouped around a tiny Brazilian or half-blood man in a sparkling dress, who was hooting into the air. Afterwards they came into his head, these people. The drug addict and her dog, the Brazilian man in the dress, the old embattled white men with their makeup. They touched him and he wondered what Europe would be like: the wet parks with tall trees, the never-ending buildings and shops with their scrolls and windows, the faces cowering over him, giving him food and fucking him in the mouth, and he would look down and see he was wearing women’s clothes.

He told Mona he wanted to marry her. She smiled at him, her long deep smile with the lip curving downward on one side into her furry obroni skin. He rubbed her nipple which grew taut like the woman in the photograph. He squeezed the small bud hard in his two fingers and watched her gasp, plunged his fingers into her.

I love you Mona.

**Do buy a copy of Short Fiction journal if you are a lover of fine writing and dazzling illustrations. You'll also read the prize-winning piece by Rachel Fenton (super-fine company and co-reader) and support the efforts of editors Anthony Caleshu and Tom Vowler, writers who are actively keeping literature alive.