Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Best British Short Stories 2014 event at Edge Hill

Last night we had a most enjoyable event for Best British Short Stories 2014, organised at Edge Hill University by fellow contributor Ailsa Cox. Also reading were Claire Dean, Vicki Jarrett and Richard Knight (Richard arriving by the skin of his teeth after getting stuck in the rush hour on the M58!) It was very interesting to hear about the journey of the others' stories into this anthology, and great to hear them read aloud. I'm afraid the photos aren't so hot - I made John use my phone which he'd never used before and didn't get the hang of in time - but I thought I'd stick them in just to give some sense of it all.

Vicki (above) told us that her story, 'Ladies' Day',  first appeared in an anthology from enterprising Scottish independent publisher Freight before being picked up for BBSS by series editor Nicholas Royle. It's an account of a group of housebound young mums attempting with a day at the races to escape the inevitable sense of being sidelined (and stereotyped) in their role - amusing yet also very touching.

It turned out that Claire's story, 'Glass, Bricks, Dust', had its first outing in an academic publication: she had been asked to write a modern fairy story (this is her specialty) along with an essay explaining her process and rationale. The story, concerning a young boy playing on a pile of demolition rubble and a mysterious lamppost on which a host of black birds perch, is indeed a fairytale, yet, as we discussed in the brief Q and A at the end, there's also something very concrete about it, and a strong sense of the reality of place - an affecting combination that characterises her work generally.

Ailsa's haunting 'Hope Fades for the Hostages' was originally commissioned for an anthology accompanying an exhibition at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool on the theme of night-time. It's an impressive orchestration of the viewpoints of three separate people awake at the same time in the night and caught with the thoughts that 3 am brings - very tense, and very moving.

Richard's story, 'The Incalculable Weight of Water' brings to vivid life a reservoir on Saddleworth Moor as the lone protagonist thinks of his wife in the cafe below waiting tensely for important news, and comes upon something unexpected in the water. It was first published online as a result of being shortlisted in the Manchester Writing Competition.

My story, 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't get Told', was first published online in The View From Here (now sadly discontinued). I'd been at Edge Hill last week for a reading by the brilliant Kevin Barry, winner of the 2013 Edge Hill Prize for the short story, and he said at one point during the Q & A that he isn't so keen on the well-rounded story with a satisfying ending, since life just isn't like that. As I said last night, I tend to agree, and the more I write the more strongly I hold that view. This particular story, which begins with the narrator struggling to tell a story based on a single memorised moment - a moment when she and her partner stand watching the tide come in - is actually about that idea.

There was a brief Q & A when we discussed the importance of place in stories. There was general acknowledgement that naming a setting can help readers imagine and identify, but Vicki and I both said that we tend not to if we can help it, because of the danger of, on the one hand, readers bringing ready-made connotations that are not necessarily useful to a story, and, on the other, of creating a sense of exclusion for readers who aren't familiar in life with a place. We were all agreed, however, that atmosphere was important, and a strong sense of place (named or unnamed) creates it.

Here are some of us milling in the interval:

Thanks so much to Ailsa, to our editor Nicholas Royle, and of course to our publishers Salt. And last, but not least, to the audience.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reading group: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

This was one of those rare occasions when those present were unanimous in praise of a book. A short novel, Voyage in the Dark deals with the story of Anna, brought to England from the West Indies at the age of eighteen by her stepmother after her father's death, and then abandoned in a strange cold country to make her own way, uneducated and deprived of the family money. Starting off as a chorus girl in a touring company, she soon falls into financial dependence on a man who is only amusing himself with her sexually, and drifts perforce from there into a kind of high-class prostitution, destitution and despair.

Although it was written in 1934, and set in 1914, we were hugely impressed by how very much ahead of its time it was both in the issues it addresses and in its prose style. As Mark, who had suggested the book, said, it exposes the hypocrisy of an upper-class Edwardian society in which sexual exploitation of women was the norm, and the contempt for women in general and their lowly status within families, and touches on postcolonial issues long before they were widely addressed - as Creole, Anna is both seen as exotic and despised. But all of this is conveyed in an entirely non-explicit way via Anna's first-person narration, which simply replicates her experience as the events unfold, relating only what people say and do and Anna's feelings as events overtake her. There's an apparent simplicity to the prose that echoes her innocence, and perhaps her lack of status and power, but in fact it's very sophisticated. It's economical rather than simple and, as the novel progresses, slips seamlessly into Anna's memories of the West Indies, her lost paradise (though of course the place where the seeds of her doom were set), often without punctuation, in a way that re-creates the fluid thought processes of memory. Therefore the novel is chiefly psychological - and thus very modern - creating layers of consciousness which the reader shares, and the effect is very powerful. In my view, too, to make a reader share the experience of oppression - as Toni Morrison also does - is in addition very political.

However, perhaps because of the lack of explication, John had wondered to me beforehand if Rhys had actually been aware of the significance of the issues raised by her story, which is famously autobiographical. Mark was in no doubt that she was, and spoke of Anna's bitter understanding of what was happening to her, and why. There was some demurring here: Jenny thought Anna was hugely innocent: she seems to have no idea of the shallow designs upon her of the man she first takes up with, Walter Jeffries, and can't see, as the present-day reader can, the signs that he's about to throw her over. But as Mark, said, Anna learns. However, because of that lack of explicitness, those lessons are only implicit, unvoiced, which I'd say creates a powerful sense of the trap that Anna, and women in her situation, are in - a social trap and a trap of silence.

Ann expressed amazement that the book had never been popular - before the years-later publication of Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (which we discussed here), it had fallen out of print, and has never since achieved the same popularity. Ann thought that this was because people simply don't want to confront the issues it raises, and the feelings of discomfort and loss and depression that it so accurately (and beautifully) recreates. I said that I didn't think I'd ever read another book showing so accurately - or even at all - the feelings one has when one is despised simply for being a woman, and everyone agreed. Jenny and I said we could remember the deflation we felt, at a much later date in history, when we were young and men treated us, as they do Anna, with sneering amusement, but none of us could think of other novels that acknowledged that, not even self-consciously feminist ones that tend rather to depict women's anger or attempt redress by portraying women as powerful.

Doug now said that the one negative thing he would say was that he found the book depressing, and Ann and I agreed that we had too, but for none of us did this detract from our huge appreciation of it, and even Trevor, who had expected not to like it since he'd hated Wide Sargasso Sea, said he'd found it wonderful.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Anniversary prize draw results

Congratulations to the winners of my anniversary draw, to each of whom a copy of one of my Salt books will be winging its way:

Balancing on the Edge of the World: Pratibha Veronica Castle and Fran Slater

Too Many Magpies: Char March and Sarah Schofield

The Birth Machine: mrcc and Frances

Winners: please email me via my profile with your address, so that I can get your book in the post asap.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Wish Dog arrives

A lovely parcel at the door this week: my author copies of The Wish Dog, ghost stories from Honno Press, which includes my story, 'A Matter of Light' - arriving just as the weather turns cold and wet and you need the electric light on halfway through the afternoon: just the weather for tucking up by the fire with a good book of spooky stories! Here they are, just unpacked, on my desk. The book's available here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Short Review looks at Unthology 5 and 'Clarrie and You'

Horrible rainy day - first real day of autumn, but I'm cheered no end by a lovely new review of Unthology 5 on The Short Review, which says some lovely things about my story, 'Clarrie and You', and the anthology as a whole. Sarah Schofield calls the book 'a glittering collection' and offers 
A huge credit to editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones that selection seems to be based on whether a story sings, not on who wrote it. Following a highly acclaimed backlist of Unthank anthologies, I believe Unthology 5 is the strongest to date.

Of 'Clarrie and You' she says:

My favourite story is Elizabeth Baines’ Clarrie and You. Rich with multifaceted believable characters, it explores deep held secrets and misunderstandings. The protagonist, Olive, reflects back on the complex relationship she has with her sister, Clarrie. Baines’ deft touch and acutely observed detail of family relationships make it a story with layers waiting to be undone;
"There are things you don’t want to remember, because doing so makes you guilty, after all these years and at your time of life, of ridiculous sibling rivalry."
The second person narration works brilliantly in both intensifying the reader’s involvement in the story and yet simultaneously feeling somewhat accusatory. We empathise with the slights Olive perceives but there are moments when we’re not entirely certain whose side to fall on. The story offers new subtleties with every read.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Anniversary giveaway

How can it be this warm on the 1st October? And in August in Wales I needed a scarf and gloves! It feels right, though, as 1st October will always be a special date for me - the date that my story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and my novel Too Many Magpies were published, as well as the date of publication of the first edition of my novel The Birth Machine.

To celebrate, once again I'm giving away two copies of each of the three books published by Salt. If you want a chance to win one (or more), please leave a message below, email me through this website, or message me on Facebook or Twitter before the end of next Wednesday (8th) when the names will be drawn from a hat. Please say which book(s) you'd like to be entered for - but remember, even if you've read them, those lovely Salt physical books make great Christmas presents!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Wish Dog let loose and a ride on a flying banquette

Today is publication day for The Wish Dog, a book of ghost stories by Welsh women which I'm delighted to say includes my story, 'A Matter of Light'. Very exciting, and in plenty of time for Halloween! Mine's a kind of strange reverse ghost story, and I wrote about my inspiration for it here. If, as I do, you like a spooky thrill, the book's available here.

If you don't know about Sharon Zink,  you really ought to, though maybe you have an excuse because she hasn't been writing all that long. She's the author of the sparky Welcome to Sharonville (Unthank Books), recently nominated as a Readers' Choice for the Guardian First Book award, and picked out by judge Richard Lea for special mention. Sharon's as sparky as her writing -  I met her at the Unthank event in June when Unthology 5 and Welcome to Sharonville were launched, and we both read. She runs a very witty series of interviews with writers, called The Book Diner, and she invited me then to be interviewed for it. I was delighted to accept. Her interview questions are, as I might have expected, both witty (they involve a flying Diner Banquette), and usefully to the point - Sharon has an entertaining habit of interspersing one's answers with her own thoughts. You can read my interview here.