Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Year of Short Story Wonders

This year has been wondrous. In a short story way. I’m not normally one for summaries and list-making madness at the end of the year, I’m someone who rather looks ahead, sees inadequacy and shortcomings everywhere, likes to get it all behind and start afresh. But something someone said to me a few days ago made me stop. I realise I’ve surrendered myself to the short story this year. I’ve been beating them out like a shoemaker stitching up leather. I’m grateful for a clutch of shortlistings and one tiny win. I’ve done workshops and readings, been to enriching festivals and, best of all, have met more short story writers than you can poke a stick at. There is a little drummer which is my beating heart that says, Short stories Cat, keep at it!

It all begins with Cathy Galvin’s Word Factory.  This year I’ve tried to go to as many Word Factory events in London as I could. I love their mix of intimacy and awesomeness. Hearing towering authors speak and read their stuff, and then sharing latest rejection or publication news with writer mates. We are instructed, inspired and coddled at the same time. Obviously it makes writing less of a solitary experience and one goes home with renewed drive, but it is even more refreshing to see big authors who have two arms and two legs and are dressed like us; and to wonder about the spark or frisson that really propels their work. Some were nervous, some splashy; many shared largely and with great humour. It is such a gift to listen, to have unvoiced questions answered.

Then there was Vienna. I think that steamy Austrian week is still glowing in many a writer’s mind. The 13th International Conference for the Short Story was a massive event with ongoing and truly international ripples. Many of the writers who took part have turned into great friends and we’ll see how many of us (fingers crossed) are able to attend the next instalment in Shanghai. Tireless Sylvia Petter was a wonderful organiser and brilliant host, and the warm Vienna evenings so dreamy.

And there have been workshops. I confess I signed up for more than one because I wanted to see how the instructing author – usually one who intrigues – might toss out writing scraps to hungry participants. I wanted to see if they would reveal points about their process of writing. Or perhaps I just wanted to see the magic up close. I was mostly satisfied. Cate Kennedy and Simon van Booy provided many, many glimmers, and though I felt like a short story groupie with a stupid grin, I did take precious morsels home.

The London Short Story Festival was a highlight, one I won’t be missing next year. Director Paul McVeigh has an infectious passion for the form and brought the crème de la crème to the floor. Listening to Claire Keegan read I felt lifted into her world of sharp smells and observations, cutting notions of the human; her salty charmed voice. Her book Walk the Blue Fields rode into me.

Daphne du Maurier
And there has been reading. Not all short stories of course. Sometimes it is good to plunge into a novel when one is being summoned by the jolting demands of writing a story. I loved Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon for language and insight, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower for mood and description and her writhing characters; Daphne du Maurier’s collection Don’t Look Now which still rings in my mind; Murakami’s New Yorker story 'Scheherazerade' and his mesmerising tome 1Q84, read under my orange umbrella on a Corsican beach; Richard Ford’s collection Women with Men bought in a secondhand bookshop in Paris this autumn.. so many and never enough.

And now to the silly season. May you receive many, many beloved books and have the time to savour them.     

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ben Okri: A Timeless Magic

What were you reading twenty years ago? Do you have it somewhere? In your attic, a row of yellowing paperbacks sharing a shelf? The first page inscribed with your old married name, so much tidier than the scrawl you've developed now? Do you still have the precious books you never lent to anyone, the ones you kept for keeps?

I went up to the attic a couple of weeks ago. It is a cob-webbed, soundless place. I brought down two Ben Okri books I found, A Way of Being Free and Incidents at the Shrine. I couldn't find The Famished Road and Dangerous Love which I know I used to have. Were they lost along the way? After several big continental moves I'm surprised when I find any of my old books.

Twenty years later I quickly found that I was not the same reader as that young woman living in Belgium. I have published books now - nothing as lyrical and accomplished as Mr. Okri's works; and although by that time I had studied African independence movements and thought I knew a little, I was clueless. I also had no idea I would soon leave for West Africa where I lived a full, life-changing ten years. That young woman was still a scrap of a thing, with only superficial stints in Paris and Mogadishu under her belt.

Rereading these two works I felt a curious melding between my original impressions of both books, and changes in myself as a reader. With the short stories, I found that the shifting, charged realities, the sharp tones of danger and dissent, and characters whose humanity was recognisable and stark, all found quick entry points and made resounding music - the dance between reader and author in a way more complete. Okri's essays, too, spoke to a more mature reader, and an older, more knowing writer now familiar with hard work, tiny successes, defeat.

From Okri's essay 'Newton's Child' (A Way of Being Free), essential for any writer:

The best kinds of books.. have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading. They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or suffered.
Further encounters with such books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live.

The highest kind of writing - which must not be confused with the most ambitious kind - belongs to the realm of grace. Talent is part of it, certainly; a thorough understanding of the secret laws, absolutely. But finding the subject and theme which is in perfect harmony with your deepest nature, your forgotten selves, your hidden dreams, and the full unresonated essence of your life - now that cannot be reached through searching, nor can it be stumbled upon through ambition. That sort of serendipity comes upon you on a lucky day. It may emerge even out of misfortune or defeat. You may happen upon it without realising that this is the work through which your whole life will sing. We should always be ready.

Inspiration is harmony. The mind loves patterns.

Better a complex mind behind a seemingly simple thought, than a simple mind behind a seemingly complex thought. The mind should always surround what it expresses. Accidental perceptions can sometimes be profound, but it is always best to make accidental perceptions into a leavening agent, to extend its radiance and influence through the texture of the work. There are few things worse than being exposed by the unabsorbed felicities of chance.

November's Word Factory evening included a reading by Ben Okri. Imagine my fascination when the great man read a short story, a parable almost, to the entranced audience. Inspiration personified. An unsteadying evening. Many of us bought copies of Okri's latest novel The Age of Magic, which I have begun reading at a snail's pace: I don't want to finish it!

Ben Okri's love of his craft is passionate and graceful, his words feel timeless and touching. Here are two more treats from the essay 'The Joys of Storytelling I' (A Way of Being Free):

We all live out lives on this side of the mirror. But when joy touches us, and when bliss flashes inside us briefly, we have a stronger intuition. The best life, and the life we would really want to live, is on the other side of the mirror - the side that faces out to the great light and which hints at unsuspected paradise.
The greatest stories speak to us with our voice, but they speak to us from the other side.

And this one surely has my name on it:

Storytellers ought not to be too tame. They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

This Short Story Writer Goes to Market

This year has been a year of much short story movement, interspersed (I promise!) with long stretches in ugg boots at my desk. But sometimes a girl has to catch a ride, catch a plane, catch a ride, and get off the continent back to her spoken language.

Last month I ventured out again and it is always a treat that fires me up when I come home. In fact I am chained to my screen even more avidly each time I come back. Each story has to be better, stronger, more accessible and startling and vigorous than the last, with no showing off (all my darlings headless and buried) and ideas gently wafted under the reader’s nose… dream on Cat

So I went to Plymouth for the International Book Festival, where this year’s stunning Short Fiction 8 was launched. My story ‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’ was a shortlisted finalist and I read out the section I will include below, sharing the stage with contributor Mariko Nagai and super editor Tom Vowler. SF8 doesn’t usually publish authors two years running and my Pelt story ‘Montgomery Akuofo, Father of Twins’ appeared last year, so I was highly honoured to be somehow breaking the rules. Grand thank you to editors Tom, Anthony Caleshu and Jamie Edgecombe. And how lovely to meet up with Vienna (the 13th International Conference for the Short Story in English) veteran Lucy Durneen!

If you are a lover of contemporary short story variety and vibrancy, do order a copy and enjoy the work of top-ranking writers including Deborah Eisenberg, Alison Moore, Alex Preston and Adnan Mahmutovic. Short Story Superhero Scott Pack is reviewing the collection this week, with one tantalising story a day.
And then I found myself at a poetry festival! Tears in the Fence – edited by the brilliant poet David Caddy – celebrated thirty years of independent publishing last month and being a two-time contributor (short stories x2!) I thought I might pop along and try the waters. Held in beautiful Dorset, writer mate Alison Lock and I read to a warm group on a chilly night, much aided by Badger Ale (and later, hot chocolate and an Abba documentary!). Apart from listening to some astounding work, the evening taught me a lot about eloquence and performance. The poets brought a colourful charge onto the stage and had to express and be their work. By comparison we short story readers had to step aside, read rather more blandly, and let the words expand the story, drawing the listeners into our world. An interesting and very marked difference!
(ps: thanks to Lesley Burt for that photo)
Meanwhile back in Londontown there was a Word Factory event. Readers will know how much I love this literary salon, organised by Cathy Galvin and Vice Director Paul McVeigh, with a team of wonderful helpers. This session began with original thinker and Sunday Times shortlistee Adam Marek, followed by Tessa Hadley whose beautiful works appears in The New Yorker, and David Constantine, remarkable winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

This country mouse can’t think of a better place to be than central London with a glass of red and three excellent short story writers talking shop - and great Chinese afterwards!

from Short Fiction 8
Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage

There are four of us on the boat. Jean-Luc and myself, and Belgian music manager Raoul Vidal and his Japanese soprano wife Mieko Inoue. Raoul, big as a cupboard, stands on the deck with arms folded, squinting back at the coast. After a few days he’s discarded his shirt. When Mieko comes on deck he bends over her like a poised wave and whatever they say is soundless. Jean-Luc has read up that she sang at Covent Garden twice, but he is pretty sure her career has flatlined. Jean-Luc has a nose for these things. He was the drummer from my old band in Marseilles.
They’ve booked for a week long cruise, emailed me strict diet instructions (no gluten, no sugar or cheese, preferably grilled seafood). Looking at Raoul, I’d say he was brought up on moules frites and tankards of beer. I once toured in Belgium with an all-female group and this is the truth: they fry pigs’ blood sausages in butter. This is something that should be explained.

Raoul has picked me up a few times when I am having a quick puff at the stern. They are just small criticisms or needs. Do you have sanitary napkins? Could you chop the cabbage in the salad a little finer for Mieko’s digestion? All over his body his skin has surrendered to the sharp summer sun and it explodes in blisters wishing to be pricked. His nose is peeling and he doesn’t care, which in turn means that Mieko doesn’t either. He asks, Do you have any copies of The New Yorker? I shake my head. I imagine he is used to long lunches.

Their suite at the bow of the boat must be pleasing to Mieko. She stays there a lot. On my way to the laundry cupboard I think I hear a sound – a voice ascending – but this ceases on its path. The boat moves on with a steady rolling. When I back into her with clean linen in the galley I hear a word that is released at great cost: Sorry. She looks at me at with my pile of clean towels and fresh sheets. It seems as though she wants to take this word back. I should ask if there is anything she needs or remind her to ask me for sea-sickness tablets if she feels unwell. She is carrying a big hat and a Japanese novel. Most probably because my ragged blue-painted nails are on show and Jean-Luc says I have feet like a platypus, I have made it my mission to see the opera singer’s toes. Mieko wears a pair of closed black espadrilles and her feet are pressed into their jute spirals.

Jean-Luc has given Raoul a Michel Houellebecq novel in French, the one where they massacre the tourists. Raoul sits on a bench and reads it through like a man on a train, his back in burning shreds. Mieko drapes herself on a deckchair fully clothed. For a long time she does not read. They sit far from each other on the deck. Before it’s time to prepare lunch I sit with Jean-Luc at the stern. We’ve just come through a rough patch. Jean-Luc misses the band life. He came to sailing late and has doubts on the water. He doesn’t like me second-calling him and stresses out when we anchor or come into port. Jean-Luc puts his hand on my thigh. As his fingers dig in I watch the fuzzy-edged scorpion inked into his skin. His nails are broken and black. The wind is high, higher than he’d like, and he has cleated both sails tightly as we cut as close as possible to the coast. We can see the point of Nonza now, the town stranded high above the pebbled black beach as though washed up in a storm. Once we are in the enclave I will set up lunch, the sole meunière Mieko just tolerates, with an avocado salad that perhaps she will not. Though initially she said she would eat prawns, her face dropped yesterday when I grilled a dozen scampi. Raoul removed the platter. There has been a misunderstanding, he said, after tilting the plate in the wash. Mieko does not eat prawns.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Two Australian Guys

At this year's International Conference of the Short Story in English, held in Vienna last July, I met two Australian authors. I don't meet Australians very often, let alone writers, so it was interesting to hear their take on the business of getting short stories together, and sending them out into the world. I read both Andy Kissane's and Cameron Rayne's collections while on the famous Corsican camping trip, and it was a treat to be transported back to Australian tones, smells and energy.

Based mostly in Sydney, Andy Kissane's book 'The Swarm' is a skilful unravelling of the stinging discomforts of love, its jostling and snagging moments; the extreme hunger of creative or physical desire that can thrust a man or woman beyond the perimeter of family. A cellist is driven by heartbreak to sell his beloved instrument; a slack husband falls for a food-obsessed office colleague; Marc Chagall introduces chickens into a Sydney flat and floats over the urban sky; a university lecturer falls hard for a sexy student while agonising over rape and violence in his own creative work. Kissane's quiet characters struggle with a swarm of elements: heartbreak, loyalty, reproduction, social conscience; as well as the lost pulse of coupledom, the loss of health, of youth.   

Looking at the three of them, I felt this rush of emotion that I couldn't begin to name, except with words like shame and remorse and each word seemed weak when compared with the depth of my feeling. There was a longing to be with them, to feel the way I'd felt when I'd snapped the photo. ('Two Many Cream Buns')

Kissane's Sydney is scented, suburban, vivid, dishevelled. It was a magnificent tree and Xavier was glad it was still standing, rising above the sandstone retaining wall for thirty or forty feet, so the canopy of the tree was level with the top floor of the house. ('The Fibbing Bird') His language is intimate, we are between friends here. How to record a relationship? People often reminisce about how they met: at an auction of second-hand furniture; in the kitchen at a drunken party.. We look for these landmarks to explain how it all started, where we took off from, how we clicked. ('In My Arms')

I also liked the non-nonsense immediacy of Kissane's openings: Paul took her order and brought the Portuguese tart and skim latte back to her table. ('Old Friends') And his fast-paced first paragraphs as he heads full-on into the many discomforts of love and family. Even his endings are a treat, sometimes imploded with humour and ironies: If she had screamed at me like she normally did, I might have known how to respond, what to say, but the crushed look on her face, the tiny squeak of her voice was the most shocking sound I have ever heard. ('Too Many Cream Buns')

And for a gal who's homesick for her home town (Sydney), sentences like these had a wonderful resonance: Occasionally, we'd stop and rest on a sandstone outcrop under the shade of a gum tree, surrounded by bush. Listening to the birdcalls, you would scarcely credit that you were in the middle of a city of four million people, with its working harbour, its slums and its widening gap between the rich and the poor. ('In My Arms')

In a different key, Cameron Raynes' collection 'The Colour of Kerosene' is set along the continent's southern and southwestern coast and also ventures into the interior. His fearless, cutting language vitalises characters as they struggle as much against each other and their stark history, as against the merciless environment. His arms were brown, scarred, his forearms as thick as pythons. Not the defined, neat muscles of the gym, they were arms you got from working outside, straining fences, hoisting bales of hay, holding an animal still while someone else worked on its horns, teeth, or balls. ('The Colour of Kerosene')

Raynes' jarring opening story, 'The Colour of Kerosene', winner of the Josephine Ulrick prize, speaks of Luke, a taxi driver who accepts a fare deep into mallee scrub and almost fails to return. He brings Jess back with him to town, abused, maltreated step-sister of the despicable Pete, with Luke's losing streak of blackjack losses scrawled on her thigh. It's a searing, chilling escape. 

Raynes' vigorous stories cover broad ground, dealing with suicide, fertility, violence, social degradation, developers, money, illness; as well as prisons, probation and Aboriginal child offenders. Families might be broken or disturbed: three generations of long-term-unemployed living under the same roof, a pitbull chained to a star picket banged into the middle of a leafless backyard that would turn into a quagmire in winter. ('Lives Less Valuable') And violence often lurks at the heart of each story: a man can get pulled out of a car in a country town and beaten 'up like shit' for killing a dog on the road; another man hauls off a dog that has mauled his daughter on the beach, and drowns it in the sea. I've never been inside Colac before. Polished jarrah boards - but everything else speaks of ambulances at four am - plastic chairs, bamboo ashtrays, tables bolted to the floorboards. Nothing that could maim if thrown. ('Lives Less Valuable')

There is a marked contrast between the haves and the have-nots, whether in terms of personal or physical riches: A pudgy little bloke in a green and white checked shirt got up from the next table as the passengers clambered out, all stretches and groans. He stood there, waiting, and then a girl came out of the bus, about twenty, no hips, skinny as a rat. She went straight for him, hugged him, and belted out a smile that could save your life. And here's me, wishing I was him. ('You Matter to God')
Or in 'The Eight-Hundred Dollar Cat', where an exasperated painted pisses on his buyer's overpriced feline.
I wondered how it would feel to own such a house. Would it make you stand taller, straighter; would it allow you to look more people in the eye? 

Raynes' characters are often wounded by life and overturned by relationships that have run aground. His powers of observation almost hurt. A tiny muscle in the corner of her mouth ticked away and Dan could see she wasn't happy with where her four years of uni had landed her.  ('Lives Less Valuable')

Both 'The Swarm' and 'The Colour of Kerosene' have been published by smaller Australian publishers (Puncher & Wattmann Fiction, Wakefield Press) and bring gritty, sensual worlds to life. If you are a homesick writer like me, interested in returning to a faraway world, both books introduce striking and enduring characters and themes. Or if Australia is a clichéed concept whose deep, dirty truths you think you might like to savour, both books are contemporary and potent.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

A Secret Life: Finding Vivian Maier

Many questions fleet across the mind of the person who chooses to follow some sort of creative vein in his or her life. And this happens every other stinking day. No?

Why the f*** am I doing this?
Is this original?
Is this worth the time of day?
Shouldn't I get a real job?
Do I believe in myself?
Am I good enough?
How the hell do I finish this?
Why the f*** am I STILL doing this?

I'd say this is a healthy way of going ahead. Self-doubt is a better editor and BFF than over-confidence. Ideas must be questioned and shaken down. Belief ought to be able to sail through cascades of depression. And our arch enemy and twin sister REJECTION must be embraced, strangled and sent packing.

But not for all of us, this quest for publication, sales, reviews, acknowledgement. Some of us are secretive. Alarmingly so.

The other Sunday morning I turned up to a Saint Germain cinema with three other people and saw a documentary called 'Finding Vivian Maier'. You might want to jot this down. Or follow the link, godammit, so much less romantic..

A young American guy called John Maloof, who grew up following his Dad around flea markets, bought up a stash of negatives and discovered a monstrous and brilliant body of work of an unknown American photographer called Vivian Maier. Her work, mostly street shots taken in Chicago, spanned from the uptight fifties to the cool seventies and opulent eighties, until she tapered off and died in poverty beside one of the great lakes. The documentary was about this young man's piecing together of Maier's secretive, sour and slightly manic life. It was about him trying to find the pulse of her decades of humble babysitting, and how this rubbed against her obsessively raw and telling images, all of which were hidden away within the stashes of newspapers and hats and brooches and boxes and negatives and rolls of undeveloped film she left behind in storage facilities to be auctioned anonymously.

The woman was a grand artist. Browse through her photographs and you will have humanity slap you in the face. Read a little about her life and you will feel queasy questions forming. Why did she live behind herself, as it were, her passion almost a hidden crime? Why did she never relate to the social world she documented so ably, except through the lives of the children she minded, occasionally roughly, and definitely in an unusual way.

Was she an abused woman whose oxygen came through this outlet? Did she ever try to obtain recognition and, if not, why not? Did she believe in herself (I think the answer is yes - her confidence is almost chilling).

It is an intriguing story, well told, compelling, saddening. No twists. Alarming work. It makes one wonder: what is the real driving force behind the artist? A perfection of the work and its aims? Can this be enough? Should this be enough? What did this woman feel about this life-force running through her? Did she not require the company of like minds? Or was her work made so much stronger for being shielded? An evolution without distraction, stories adrift and all the more powerful?

I confess I have always found photography to be so close to short story writing. Another language - yes - but the same boisterous, finger-shaking family at the table. Just think: the importance of framing, the capturing - even stealing - of a moment, the fact that there are a range of varying viewpoints and only one will give the dazzling result of a work that is infused, charged and possibly timeless.

Thank you John Maloof for finding Vivian Maier.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Vienna, an Island of Story

A couple of weeks ago I caught the midnight train to Vienna. As usual (this is Italy) my booked seat had been hijacked and I had to fight for another. As usual, I hadn't downloaded a map or bought a guidebook and didn't have a clue where I was going. My guardian angel took the form of a young Albanian football player who had drifted to Austria from Italy, so I was escorted into central Vienna where I - as tired short story writers do - fell asleep in a park.

This conference had been long time coming. Held every two years, the 13th International Conference of the Short Story in English is a celebration of the form, involving writers and academics who are shameless lovers of the short story. This year's event took place in Vienna, directed by Dr. Maurice A. Lee and his second-in-charge Sylvia Petter, with a dense and enlightening programme of lectures and readings, much coffee talk and discussion, after-hour readings and soirées, and a wonderful closure dinner ending a fantastic week. The Conference also produced an anthology entitled Unbraiding the Short Story and held a competition on this theme.

Hands up who wants to attend the next Conference in Shanghai?

Though I was torn between attending academic events and readings by fellow writers, I ended up taking part in an endless mix of sessions. Big-time writers such as Cate Kennedy and Robert Olen Butler were in attendence, so imagine my frisson when I joined Cate's workshop on dialogue (tongue-tied Catherine didn't produce a thing) and soaked it all up like litmus paper. Thanks Cate! Without sounding like a groupie I did go to Cate's reading as well, where she read one of my favourite pieces 'What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved' and had a bunch of us in tears.

Many thanks to Sylvia Petter and her team, who kept a very large and varied show on the road. I managed to see quite of few talks including those by fellow Australians Cameron Raynes on 'Pitch-Perfect Endings and the Oldest Story of All' and Andy Kissane speaking about 'Dreaming Australia: David Malouf's Dream Stuff'. And a range of readings by Adnan Mahmutovic, Alison Lock, Zoe Gilbert, Vanessa Gebbie, Jean Almeida. Milling around before and after - and in the biergarten beyond - I met up with literary mates Paul McVeigh, Alison Lock, Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Alison MacLeod, and new short story friends Jose Varghese, Lucy Durneen, Anna Solding, Rebekah Clarkson, Bronwyn Mehan, Jarred McGinnis, Rhoda Greaves. The list could well go on.

For anyone outside the short story world conversation topics may have seemed a little repetitive (Have you read this? Who published that? How are sales going? I loved the second story in that collection!) however we did branch out to discuss other issues such as writerly tattoos, what time that mojito bar opens, and who's going to the open-air Frank Sinatra film later on?

But that might require another blog post.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

For the Love of Short Stories

Some people love short stories. They just do. It's like loving apricots, or rainy days, or a good Traminer. It is an indisputable love, a love that is self-serving and self-perpetuating.

A bunch of these people gathered at Waterstones Piccadilly on 20th-22nd June for the inaugural London Short Story Festival - to listen, read, workshop, chatter, celebrate, share. It wasn't a fancy gathering. I'd say it was earnest and discreet. There were some big short story rock stars, as well as smaller people with just a story or two published. I think there was a good warm feeling in the air.

Organised by tireless short story champion Paul McVeigh and London's Spread the Word, there were talks about the weird and wonderful in the short story, about idea generation and the current boom in opportunities for short story publication, about compiling a collection, about voice, about approaching agents and publishers and writing for radio, about the current crop of brilliant Irish short story writers. These were delightfully chaired by - among others - Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie, Paul McVeigh, Anita Sethi and Alex Preston.  There was a series of workshops with authors Claire Keegan, M.J. Hyland, Claire Wigfall, Frank O'Connor shortlister Colin Barrett and Jacob Ross, plus free writing workshops with expert teachers and a Speakers' Corner where stories were read to aficionados - by intriguing writers such as Ruby Cowling, winner of this year's White Review Short Story Prize. There were also special interviews with inspiring short story stars Claire Keegan, Jackie Kay and Colin Barrett.

I didn't manage to book tickets to all events but I did go to a good smattering (these were entirely affordable). Tania spoke to 'weird' authors Dan Powell, Adam Marek and Robert Shearman, who all read mesmerising pieces of their work. Vanessa spoke with a panel of 'gatekeepers' in the short story world, including Jacques Testard of The White Review, cool literary agent Carrie Kania and Jen Hamilton Emery of Salt Publishing. I was lucky enough to hear Claire Keegan read from her New Yorker story 'Foster' - I can still hear the lovely tones of Claire's voice and am reading her collection Walk the Blue Fields at the moment. I also participated in a workshop with M.J. Hyland who handed out a series of tricky (and daunting) writing exercises - to 'shorten the apprenticeship' that all of us are working through. And finally, I heard Frank O'Connor shortlister A.L. Kennedy, Helen Simpson and M.J. Hyland read from their work in a session aptly entitled 'In Praise of the Short Story', chaired by Alex Preston (wearing an excellent shirt).

Though I escaped a couple of times to cocktail down at Southbank or brunch with a friend, it was an intense weekend, spent within one of the most alluring bookshops I know, surrounded by the very books we are all trying to compose. It was indeed an inspiring, comforting, sometimes daunting Festival and I will be coming back next year. 

Congratulations Paul!

There's something very lively about short stories - you can be taken through a whole lifetime in just a few minutes. Festival Director Paul McVeigh

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Connecting Writers: The Writing Process Blog Tour

What am I working on ?

I am working on my second short story collection and hopefully nearing the end. I’ve been working on it for over a year and have nearly twenty stories. One has won a competition, another was a short-listed finalist and is coming out in an anthology in July, another was long-listed and another has been accepted by a literary review. I still seem to have lots of ideas and am generating new work, but I am also at the phase where I am beginning to think of story order and how I would like the book to feel. My first collection came out in September 2013 with Indigo Dreams Publishing UK.

How does my work differ from others of its genre ?

Perhaps my stories have a broad range of locations as I come from Australia and have lived in West Africa and in several different places in Europe. I also like incorporating some colonial history when it seems relevant, as this is one of my great passions, and social issues like integration and migration. Crossing over into new cultures has been a big part of my life and that of many of those around me, so I have a deep interest in exploring this theme.

Why do I write what I do ?

I’ve always been attracted to both the short story form and the way language can be an important ingredient in its lingering effect. I love the power and verve of the short story. I love its precision and turning points, its resolution or open-endedness; the way it twitches on the page. With regard to subject matter, the compression of the short story works well for me – I can slide from one location to another, without the wearying depth of field that would be required for a novel. Each story is so exciting to write – it becomes your universe for the time you are creating it – and I also find that the fast and feisty rhythm of producing short stories is suited to my temperament and crazy lifestyle!

How does my writing process work ?

I am always listening for ideas. I love to feel a story beginning in my head and just live with it for a while or write a few notes (I think I have forgotten loads of ideas that way!). For me it’s really important to hop on the merry-go-round at the right point. First words are critical and the entry moment where you begin to unveil your idea to the reader must be subtle and resounding at the same time. I try to write in freefall, not searching too hard but letting voice come through and pitch establish itself. I think the story has to feel effortless and a little training must be involved – also dud stories must be abandoned! The most exciting part is having an uncertain idea about what will happen, and perhaps turning off on an unexpected tangent, then try to align the bones of the story and get to its beating heart. I also love a strong ending and like to try to steer towards this, although when it happens it is usually a moment of surprise for me too. I agree with what I think George Saunders said about the short story: Get in and get out

Thanks Alison Lock for this and I'll pass the baton to Rachel Fenton who will post next week..