I am pleased to point you in the direction of Sledgehammer Lit which has published my short story Les Grotesqueries, a piece of flash fiction about dogs written in French and English.
Sledgehammer is a new online journal, only one week old, established here in Guernsey by my buddy Joe who has been a key member of the writing workshop I have been running for the past year and a half. You can read some of Joe’s published work here.
On the second of January (2020) we went to town and bought some spoons, having noticed we never quite had enough. Then we took the cat to the vets for her yearly check-up. We felt so organised and on top of things, surely this would be an efficient, orderly year. In February we went to Manchester and there was a man at the airport dressed in full hazmat suit, as a joke. Ha ha. Ha. Um, ha? From there, things went downhill, didn’t they? Here on the small island we were very lucky and got away with it lightly. Since the summer, life here has been weirdly normal. Apart from not being able to leave, we can get on with life as normal – walking around, doing things.
Still, 2020 – with its insistence that we spend more time alone, its crackdown on things going on, its constant events that you wanted to block out with fiction – was a good year for reading. Lots of reading. Good books (Boy Parts, the debut by Eliza Clark; White Tears by Hari Kunzru, the excellent Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichy), more good books (Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor), bad books (I read a James Paterson novel for a library reading challenge), confounding books (Jaws by Peter Benchley – 50 pages left and they hadn’t even got in the boat?!). Books by authors I really like (the new Juan Pablo Villalobos was good but didn’t hit the heights of his others). Books that I’d read before (both of Jon McGregor’s last two novels – Even The Dogs, Reservoir 13 – were rewarding to revisit). Books that won prizes (I really liked Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and Milkman by Anna Burns). Books, books, books, books, eh?
There was Clyde Fans by Seth – a beautifully, quietly drawn story about two brothers running a shop that sells electric fans. In places it flirts with being almost deliciously boring before it yields and offers up its awkward charms. I read this right at the start of the year (it was a present last Christmas) and writing about it now makes me want to re-visit it.
Cathy Sweeney’s Modern Times was my favourite collection of short stories. These are stories that exist right in the space where I like them – short, weird, funny. Over the course of this collection, Sweeney proved herself adept at writing stories that didn’t proceed how you expected, twisting and turning in surprising ways that nevertheless never felt forced.
My favourite novel of the year was Hurricane Season by Mexican author Fernanda Melchor. Soon after reading it, I was gratified to read in an interview with her that two writers who had influenced her were Stephen King and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This was pleasing because the first, brief, chapter, in which a group of small boys discover a body in the stream seemed like an homage to King’s The Body, the short story that inspired the film Stand By Me. The second chapter, which recounts the history of The Witch and her influence in the village in which the novel is set, and describes the passing of the mantle to her progeny, also known as The Witch, reminded me of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, of all the generations of characters, the strange magic, things that might be myths.
At that point, I thought that was what Hurricane Season was going to be about, but where One Hundred Years Of Solitude spirals outwards, adding more and more and more on top of what has already happened, Hurricane Season at this point digs inwards and spends the rest of its 200 (dense, intense) pages exploding the village’s myths until anything that might have seemed magical is exposed, worn down to a gritty reality in a series of hard truths told by the various characters implicated in the life and death of The Witch.
Bonus Music Bloggery Content! My Favourite Albums of 2020
DEERHOOF – Future Teenage Cave Artists
THE SOFT PINK TRUTH – Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?
In October 2016, I wrote a post about music that was good to listen to whilst writing. But then what happened was that people kept on writing and recording and releasing music so there kept on being more of it.
Another thing that happened was that everyone had to stay inside for months and not go near any other people, which meant that lots of people who make music couldn’t make money by touring etc. Bandcamp, who let artists sell their stuff on their own terms, started waiving their cut of sales every first Friday of the month.
Anyway, if you’re looking to stock up on music-for-listening-to-when-writing, this Friday (August 7th) could be a good time to do it. I heartily recommend all of the below albums (and you can usually listen to the whole album on Bandcamp before buying anyway, so you don’t need to take my word for it).
I would have written something about each of these but it wouldn’t be very descriptive – so for this post let your ears do the work instead of your eyes (or something).
A quick update on a few things that have been going on / went on before the world got shut down.
On Saturday 15th March, I read my short story Blue In The Condition Of Blue at the Guille-Alles Library as part of Sneakaway To The Library, a Vale Earth Fair event. As well as listening to me ramble on for a few minutes, people were able to listen to some poetry and some musicians in what was a very lovely and sedate evening at the top of the library, with lots of hand sanitiser and a can bar.
Sneakaway was the launch for the Earth Fair Zine, the first of its kind, which was published to celebrate the first Sneakaway stage at last August’s Vale Earth Fair. This playfully put together little book contains my story An Ambulance For Inanimate Objects, which was among the stories I read at the festival back in August. There’s some other great stuff in it too – stories, poems, artwork. Illustrations pop in and out around the words, giving the whole thing a lot of character.
Another recent Guernsey publication is Zone 4, the fourth edition of the island’s comic anthology Zone. I have yet to see a copy in the flesh but I saw the proofs and it looked to be a pretty incredible explosion of colour, story, madness, beauty. Included in Zone 4 is a version of my story Erraticism illustrated by Mikal Dyas. Erraticism was previously published a number of years ago as a straight-ahead words-on-a-page story – Mikal’s illustrations have given it a new lease of life (and he invented some new days, which maybe we should all adopt now, especially in this time when no one really knows what day it is).
Finally, FAO anyone who is in Guernsey and writes / has written / would like to write… I have, in recent months, started to run a monthly writing workshop at the Guille-Alles on a Tuesday evening. If you are interested in getting involved please give me a shout – though it is unclear at this point when the next one will go ahead, we will try and keep something going online during the interim lockdown period.
I usually do this post at the end of December / beginning of January but now it’s halfway through February and one eighth of the year has already passed and… but… oh well… I thought I’d just do it anyway. These books haven’t gone anywhere, they still exist.
One of the first things I read last year was Today I Wrote Nothing, a collection of the work of early 20th century Russian weirdo Daniil Kharms. His insanely short, shortly insane stories conjur up such strange images and unlikely series of events that it is impossible not to be captivated by them, pleased that they exist, perplexed by the author. I guess Passages by Ann Quin falls into a similar category. A fractured and sprawling short novel clings to the idea of a narrative, but there is a fierce poetry at work which is trying to shake it loose.
I read Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Recuperation whilst on holiday, which is just when you want to subject yourself to this kind of relentlessly myopic piece of self-obsessed fun. It’s narcissistic, it’s slow, the narrator’s psychosis feeds back on itself over and over. It should be miserable, but is not.
My favourite short story collection I read was by Stuart Dybek, whose collection The Start Of Something : Selected Short Stories I checked out after hearing a couple of his pieces on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. A poet and short story writer, Dybek’s stories are suitably image driven, twisting and bending in time and tone, so that it feels like the narrator is floating above and around the narrative, gloriously disregarding of the usual rules of gravity.
In the introduction to his slim (slim in theory, it’s only available as an ebook) work W C L D N, Glen Wilson admits that he is not sure what his book is – diary, confessional, something else…? It is an account of watching the 2018 World Cup in and around London, but also an account of depression. This is not a wild, manic depression, but a quiet one in which the author recounts an inability to socialise, a disconnection with the world around him. It could not be said that Wilson bends this into a narrative – and this is one of the book’s strengths. There is no tying of loose ends, just a flattening, a quiet plea for help.
My favourite novel of the year was Patience. I had already heard its author Toby Litt read some pages of it in 2018 when he was the tutor on a course I attended. The few pages he read were all about staring at a white wall – this is the perspective of the narrator Elliott, a boy with cerebral palsy who lives in an orphanage run by nuns. He cannot move or speak, and is often parked for the day in front of a white wall on which he now knows every scratch and blemish. So far, so grim. Except Patience is anything but grim – Elliott may be unable to move but he is nevertheless a force of nature. His understanding, his wit and his patience are incredible. Time moves differently in this novel – we are on Elliott time, in which waiting days or weeks for something to happen is no bother. I could ramble on about it some more but I’ll stop here – just read it.
Bonus Music Bloggery Content!: My Favourite Albums of 2019
1. RICHARD DAWSON – 2020
2. CATE LE BON – Reward
3. MARIKA HACKMAN – Any Human Friend
4. SELF ESTEEM – Compliments Please
5. THE COMET IS COMING – Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery
6. VANISHING TWIN – The Age Of Immunology
7. PURPLE MOUNTAINS – Purple Mountains
8. MOON DUO – Stars Are The Light
9. MATANA ROBERTS – Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis
10. MODERN NATURE – How To Live
Quiet year so far, but now lets break the silence with not one but two pieces of writing-related news.
On Sunday 25th August I did my second ever live reading, on the Sneakaway Stage at Guernsey’s Vale Earth Fair*. This is a terrible way to announce such an event, as it’s already happened so if you read this and wanted to come it’s too late. Oh dear. Sorry. Anyway, I am pleased to report it went well (or not badly, at least) – I read two short stories, which, on a poetry-heavy stage, must have been a bit of a nice break for people, if nothing else.
My other piece of news is that my story Blue In The Condition Of Blue has been shortlisted for the Aurora Prize for Writing 2019 (Short Fiction category). It says so here. The Aurora Prize for Writing is run by Writing East Midlands in partnership with the Society of Authors, and this year’s fiction prize is judged by Alison Moore, whose novel Lighthouse I greatly enjoyed**.
* The Vale Earth Fair is held each year on the August Bank Holiday Sunday at Vale Castle in Guernsey. The main stage is within the walls of the castle, with various other stages dotted around. The Sneakaway Stage was new for 2019 and was situated right around the back of the castle, down the steps and along a path through some gorse. If you wanted to come and find it, you had to make a bit of an effort.
** I wrote about it a bit here. I also enjoyed her short story collection The Pre-War House And Other Stories and her novel He Wants, but Lighthouse is the one that stands out for me.
In the same way that football players endorse particular boot manufacturers and pop stars sell their favourite fizzy drinks (I assume these things still happen, I don’t really know), I would like to turn the crisp sheet of my newspaper to discover a full page ad with e.g. Jeanette Winterson advertising her favourite pen or George Saunders extolling the virtues of a certain make of desk.
For my part, when I am grown up and a fully-fledged famous author with pages and pages being written about my pages and pages, I would have no hesitation in agreeing to become the face of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5).
“Details make all the difference,” I would purr in my by-then-distinctive handwriting.
I have kept notebooks for the last 16 years. Each has served as a place to jot down half-thought out ideas, scribble little messages, expand ideas into sentences and paragraphs and stick cuttings or wayward pieces of paper.
The ideal notebook is smart enough to care about but not so polished to give the impression it must be kept immaculate. Part of its job is that it must be possible to make mistakes in it – making mistakes in is what it is there for.
Its pages must be welcoming – it is a mobile office to use however, whenever and wherever you want or need. It needs to be ok with having something incongruous stuck in with glue, to have a sentence that might not work yet scrawled in it or to house a preposterous idea written with confidence in big letters.
A few years ago I bought my first Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5) during a visit to Fred Aldous, the art supplies shop in the centre of Manchester. I was looking for a new notebook as the one I was using at the time was running low on unused pages, so I had a little flick through one of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbooks they had there. It seemed decent enough.
But after using it for a few weeks I came to appreciate its many qualities. Slim, with decent paper, and bound loosely enough to accommodate being fattened with stuck-in cuttings but not so loose as to feel like it might fall apart. Then the nice touches – rounded corners, page numbers (!), a contents page (I feel no real need for a contents page, but I have found fun uses for them).
I haven’t really looked back and must be on my sixth or seventh Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook – my preference is for the ones with squared paper but blank pages works well too (for some reason, I have never found lines conducive to work). All of which makes me, I think, the ideal face and handwriting of this particular brand of notebooks.
What would you like to see advertised and who by and why? What kind of notebooks do you like using? Is this how I am supposed to end blog posts, with a series of questions? I wasn’t sure how else to wrap this one up to be honest? It was just a bit of a vague ramble, wasn’t it? Oh well?
As I usually do at the end of a year, I thought I would set my thoughts down on some things I enjoyed reading in 2018. I know it’s now the beginning (ish) of 2019 but the idea is the same. In places these thoughts may be fragmentary or only semi-useful… nevertheless, here they are.
One of the first books I read last year (because it was a Christmas present at the end of the previous year) was Joff Winterhart‘s beautifully observed and drawn Driving Short Distances (2017). Whilst examining everyday-type people, its power comes in highlighting the tiny details – winks, grimaces, tufts of hair.
David Keenan‘s novel This Is Memorial Device (2017) boasts the fantastically overblown and brilliantly specific subtitle ‘An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986.’ Keenan borrows the energy of the most hyberbolic kind of music writing and allows a population of strange characters to reverberate against one another in the claustrophobic small town setting.
Dreamlike in a completely different way, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992) cast a spell on me. It is however going to be difficult to describe why… it had a haunting quality to it and seemed composed of thoughts which ran from one thing to the next. Beautiful and sad, though more beautiful than sad…
Having first encountered Cesar Aira in 2017, I continued with my Aira fandom last year, and actually happened to meet another fan for the first time, which kind of confirmed that Aira was real. All of Aira’s books proceed in strange and unexpected ways, a product of his ‘constant flight forward’ philosophy, and my favourite of the ones I read this year was How I Became A Nun (1993), which is worth it for the opening few scenes alone – a fiasco in strawberry ice-cream.
Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Metropole (1970), a present from friend Lee, was the most terrifying thing I read all year. A traveller is diverted to another city, one whose language and organisation are both incomprehensible and unfathomable. Struggling to get a foothold, he tries in vain to understand the city’s food, transport, leisure, failing to get anywhere with increasing alarm. The effect is mesmerising, suffocating, frustrating – like the character, there is nothing to which us readers can cling.
My two favourite short story collections of the year were James Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man (1965) and A Manual For Cleaning Women (2015) by Lucia Berlin. Both wrote with clarity and beauty.
The James Baldwin story Sonny’s Blues (with its sadness leading to a jazz club redemption) and My Jockey by Lucia Berlin (one and a half meticulous pages) were amongst my favourite short works this year. But there was also Doppelganger, Poltergeist, the final piece in Denis Johnson‘s final collection (a friendship becomes defined by a conspiracy theory about Elvis being replaced by a double) and the remarkable reading experience of Triptyks by Ann Quin (a piece of work which doesn’t seem to make any narrative sense, but does progress as you allow another part of your brain to enjoy the cascade of images and scenarios). Plus Defending The Pencil Factory a one-off from one of my favourite current writers, Adam Marek (which pursues a slightly surreal premise before finding an original ending by alluding to another piece of work instead of actually finishing the story). There were probably other great short pieces of writing that I enjoyed and have forgotten, I should keep better notes.
Last but by some means most (by virtue of me deciding this might be my favourite thing I read all year) – Man With A Seagull On His Head (2017). Harriet Paige’s wilfully disobedient novel stubbornly refuses to fit in the template you expect. Despite at first appearing fairly sedate, it is whimsical and unpredictable, and at times seems to hang together by a thread. Much of it revolves around not-quite coincidences, characters not-quite meeting, loose ends not-quite being tied up. I recommend it.
In February, I completely failed to mark the ten year anniversary of the creation of this blog. But when I checked, later in the year, it turned out to be true and I had been posting things here since February 2008.
In the Spring, I finished two longer slabs of short story that had been on my plate for a while. I will look for somewhere to publish these.
In May, I attended the Guernsey Literary Festival, but this time didn’t write anything about it here or anywhere else. Nevertheless, it still happened. My highlight was probably attending a workshop run by Daljit Nagra.
Towards the end of June, I started a new project that resembles a novel in size and shape. I aimed to write one page (roughly 400 words) every week day and give it to Rach to read whilst she ate her breakfast. The story slowly started nudging its way into existence.
In the Summer, my (informal, semi-regular) writing group set ourselves a couple of writing challenges and then met up at the pub to read them out (we also met throughout the year to discuss things in general, but there’s no section in this thing for things that happened throughout the year).
In September, I scurried away to deepest, darkest, dampest Yorkshire for a week-long experimental fiction retreat. The course was geared towards exploring and trying new things, not necessarily working towards a thing that was finished and complete and shiny. It was refreshing to have that impetus removed and to just spend some time playing and trying things out. I also met a great bunch of people.
In November, I read a short story to around 40 people at the inaugural Guilles-Alles Library Fiction Open Mic night.
In December, my short story, ‘An Ambulance’ was published online by the Mechanics Institute Review.
Later in December, I completed the project I set in motion back in June and found I had surprised myself by finishing the writing of the first draft of a short novel. This piece of work has been locked away to mature for a month or so, then I will look at redrafting it.