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Story | ‘Mini-Opera for Ernst Mahler’ by Blair Reeve

The third in a series of short-listed stories from the Still/Foyles short story competition is by New Zealander – and Hong Kong resident – Blair Reeve.

Blair says he knew nothing about Mahler when he wrote his story. ‘When I saw the photograph of the piano, the first word that popped into my head was Mahler. I was pleased to discover on Wikipedia that he was in fact a pianist, and had written a never-performed nor published opera for his brother, Ernst – titled Herzog Ernst von Swaben – and there came the impetus for my story, ‘Mini-Opera for Ernst Mahler’.’

For the competition, writers were invited to contribute a new story (maximum 500 words) inspired by the photograph, ‘The Stage (Piano)’ – which was not included in literary art book/anthology Still.

Mini-Opera for Ernst Mahler

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof BakkerGustav unpicked a depressed middle C with a disappointed fingernail. It came unstuck. He tapped it again. A faint thud and stick. The hushed auditorium absorbed the boy’s flat puzzlement. Brother Ernst, currently decomposing in Iglau’s Jewish cemetery, his still-itching, month-old corpse heavily ravaged from the typhus that had starred his torso red, could hear it too – this maladroit pause in the score of his eponymous opera. His wizened skull-face smiled, approving the prank. The rickettsia multiplied feverishly in the mush of his fetid dermis.

Professor Pospisil hovered in the wings. Old though it was, the piano had played well during Gustav’s morning rehearsal. What had gone wrong? Cracked key in the balance rail hole? The felt bushing binding against the front rail pin? An unglued jack flange? Broken hammer shank? Poor fastidious fool, for in fact it was the chip-thin forint Gustav had found that morning, which he had jammed deep between the ivories in posthumous perpetuation of a game that his dying brother had dreamed up on his death bed several weeks earlier.

At the first pass, a giggling Gustav had found the coin in his inkpot and extracted it after staining his fingers a dark blue that would take Mother an hour to scrub off. He responded by fitting the forint inside the cap of Ernst’s medicine flask. Ernst then hid it in the lining of Gustav’s blazer, Gustav in the spine of Ernst’s favourite book, Ernst inside Gustav’s pillow, and so on, every few days, until Ernst finally outwitted Gustav by wedging it beneath the spat of his brother’s left pump from where the future composer had only just retrieved it this morning.

As Gustav delicately danced his hands out of this faked predicament into the second theme, the mediums of light and sound re-jigged their relativities in the eyes and ears of his audience. Everyone, Professor Pospisil included, could see the boy pianist’s cheeks puffing in concentration, his shoulders heaving, his arms pumping, but all that could be heard of ‘Herzog Ernst von Schwaben’ was a sustained silence, a period stop to the boom of heavy notes still echoing among the rafters.

That prolonged mute note, the eerie stillness of Ernst’s sarcophagal home, had expanded like a bubble and encased the performance space inside an abiding emotion. Out of the piano’s gaping mouth, an apparition rose, hovering above the vibrating strings, crescendoing on a wavering stave of love – Ernst Mahler as visible music, an evanescent revelation forever dying through the farewell portal his brother had contrived to seal the ends of their fraternal bond.

BLAIR REEVE was born in 1968 and began writing and performing poetry at the Robbie Burns readings in Dunedin, New Zealand, during the 1990s. Since then, Blair has been a featured poet at events in Tokyo (where he lived from 2001-2007), New York and Hong Kong where he has been living and writing fiction since 2008. His poems have been published in various New Zealand journals as well as in ex-pat publications in Tokyo and at His first short fiction was published in the Asia Literary Review’s 2011 special edition on Japan. Blair is currently enrolled in the City University of Hong Kong’s MFA program.


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Story | ‘Waiting To Go On’ by Gill Blow

The second posting of short-listed stories from the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition is ‘Waiting To Go On’ by Gill Blow – a writer from Lincolnshire. The story is her first attempt at writing flash fiction.

For the competition, writers were invited to contribute a new story (maximum 500 words) inspired by the photograph, ‘The Stage (Piano)’ – which was not included in literary art book/anthology Still.

Waiting To Go On

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof BakkerThere are different ways of waiting. There’s waiting on a platform for a train, or in a queue at Costas’, and at a level crossing when you pull on the handbrake and reach for a mint and chew it. There’s waiting for a reply to your e-mail or letter, or a birthday card from someone who was once special…who perhaps still is. There’s waiting for an operation, lying stiff and helpless in a white gown that lets in cold air to your back and exposes your bum, and you have no choice but to enter the world of letting it happen and allow strangers to have the power over what happens to you next. You wait for this intrusion, to be anaesthetised and thus forfeit all control. You wait to wake up afterwards. You wait for it all to be over.

Like standing in the wings, waiting to go on stage, taking in breaths that feed no air into your lungs, your body throbbing as your pulse pounds, you stare at the piano standing solid behind the thick golden folds of curtain. Solitary and immaculate, its black mahogany burnished, its ivory keys gleaming, its raised lid lifted high proudly exposing its highly strung insides. It waits.

A strip of light from the auditorium penetrates the curtains and plays over the steel pedals, that your feet will, in a few moments, compress and release, shifting the shafts of light and dark tone created by your fingers; one hand following the other, moving in remorseless memory of sound that is soft, lingering, sorrowful, jubilant.

A murmuring accompanies the light beam which filters thinly through the opening, it invades the stage space, its sound increases. Greetings are heard, the clunk of seats, a shout of laughter, a cough. You imagine lines of people filing down each gangway unzipping their jackets, stowing their handbags, settling in seats. You hear the babble of their voices, like rooks cawing and calling in a rookery, like the sound of the sea falling on sand. Their waiting is like a granite rock bearing down on your shoulders.

A silence descends and you hear nothing, become no-one. Into this void arrives a limbo into which you float; you disconnect yourself, become adrift in the wings, are translucent, invisible. You absorb the certain knowledge that you will not perform, you will refuse to play. You care not that the concert will be postponed and the ticket holders will demand their money back, or that your reputation will be in shreds, shredded with the sheet music of Beethoven and shoved into black bin bags. You care not that your career will be ended, and the piano will remain mute, and you will both go your separate ways; like used-to-be lovers whose enchantment became tarnished, it lost its appeal, until, in the end, it vanished.

Split Seconds by Gill BlowGILL BLOW lives at Knaith near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. She previously worked with families and professionals in community development work and adult learning. She studied writing through The Open University and also Sheffield Hallam University, where she was awarded an MA Writing (Distinction) and received the AM Heath Prize for her short story collection. One of her stories has been broadcast by the BBC and others have been published in literary magazines and newspapers. Her monologue ‘Still Alive With Clive’ was performed at the Lincolnshire Festival of New Drama. She was recently shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the Mslexia Short Story competition. Split Seconds, a collection of short stories was self-published in 2012.




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Q&A | Jos Buivenga, type designer

Interview by Roelof Bakker

Jos BuivengaJOS BUIVENGA IS A DUTCH TYPE DESIGNER who is part of a new wave of designers who publish their own typefaces. He runs type foundry Exljbris publishing beautiful typefaces with classic appeal. I discovered Buivenga’s typeface Museo when researching Dutch typefaces for the design of Still. I believe in chance encounters and like the fact that Buivenga studied and lived in Arnhem, where I grew up before I moved to London many years ago. His typeface Museo was used for the design of Still.

Where does your love for typography come from?
It originates from art school in Arnhem, The Netherlands, where people like Fred Smeijers, Martin Majoor and Evert Bloemsma fired up my interest for type design.

Who and what are your influences?
I’m sure I’m influenced by a lot of things and people, but most of them not type-related and therefore hard to pinpoint.

Still, Negative Press London (2012), edited by Roelof Bakker

Headline styled in Museo 500 all caps

Museo has been around since 2008 and was used throughout the design of Still. The moment I styled the word STILL in all caps MUSEO 500, the book cover design seemed to come together. I was looking for a modern typeface that would also express a Modernist/1930s mood. Designers seem to respond to the flexibility and versatility of Museo, what do you think makes it such a versatile multi-functional font?
One part of it being versatile is that it is available also in sans and (full) slab. The other part is more difficult for me to determine. For being flexible and versatile, a typeface (family) has to be able to perform in a lot of circumstances, and that can only happen when in a lot of circumstances people have the feeling – like you did – that it feels a right choice.

What has been the most special use of any of your typefaces?
One memorable highlight for me was that Dell started using slightly customised versions of Museo and Museo Sans for all their communications.

Apart from the book’s title and individual author story titles, the body copy in Still was also set in Museo. Any thoughts on the design of Still and use of type?
The title looks great I think, but I also think I would have preferred Museo Sans for body copy. It runs more economic and it’s easier to read for body copy.

What projects are you involved in right now?
I’m working now on Museo Slab extended Cyrillic together with Russian type designer Irina Smirnova. With Martin Majoor, the designer of Scala & Scala Sans, I’m working on the Questa project – an extended font family that will have a display, a text and a sans variant.



Museo by Jos Buivenga

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Q&A | Ava Homa

Ava HomaAVA HOMA LIVES IN TORONTO, CANADA. She is a Kurdish-Iranian-Canadian writer. Her collection of short stories, Echoes From the Other Land was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Ava’s writings have appeared in various journals including the Toronto Quarterly, Windsor Review and the Kurdistan Tribune. She’s finishing work on a her first novel and teaches creative writing and English. For Still she wrote ‘A Rose For Raha’, a story about a Kurdish family trying to find their way in Canada.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Eastern Kurdistan (Iran) and my parents still live there. Being a Kurdish woman, I was stigmatised both for my gender and my ethnicity. Nevertheless, living in a collective culture, I’d received unconditional love from my family and close relatives. Something I really miss here. I entered Canada on a student visa six years ago.

How do you describe yourself: Canadian, Kurdish, Iranian?
I have a hyphenated identity: I am Kurdish-Iranian-Canadian. The truth is that I have been exposed to all these cultures and have picked and chosen the best in each as much as I have been able to. The unconscious part of my brain has done its own selection without my consent.

Your story ‘A Rose For Raha’ is about a Kurdish family now living in the free world in Canada, but still not being able to be free. Is this based on your own experience? If not, where did the inspiration come from?
Writing fiction means feeling for others and writing about them. My family never left Kurdistan, but I have observed that the dictatorship mentality lasts long after the dictator is gone. I have observed that victims of oppression can sometimes turn into victimisers without being aware of it.

Female Artists Dressing Room (Rose) by Roelof Bakker

Female Artists’ Dressing Room (Rose) by Roelof Bakker

You selected a photograph with a dried yellow rose. Is the rose significant for you or in Kurdish/Iranian culture?
It was hard to choose between all the inspiring and beautiful photos, but something drew me towards this rose, not because of a significant cultural connotation, rather because of the sense of attractiveness mixed with exhaustion. That’s the sense this photo instilled in me.

Did you enjoy collaborating with an artist?
It was my first experience and a lovely, stimulating one. I look forward to more such collaborations.

How did you get into writing?
It was in me from a very young age. I completed my first manuscript at grade 5: an animal story illustrated by my immature drawing. I followed my instincts to write despite the infinite cultural/economical obstacles. Now, I am hooked on the joy of writing.

Who/what was your greatest influence?
I am constantly inspired by great people. I can mention two examples: Leila Zana, the female Kurdish leader who was imprisoned by the government of Turkey for ten years but never lost her strength and spirituality. She gives me hope as to what extent humans can be resilient.

Bahman Ghobadi, the award-winning Kurdish writer and director of A Time for Drunken Horse, Turtles Can Fly, Half Moon, and most recently Rhino Season. I believe he has served the Kurds in the best possible way. He is passionate, artistic, honest, talented, lovable, inspiring.

Your book of short stories, Echoes From the Other Land, explores the position of women in Iran. Are you active politically to improve women’s lives in Iran? Do you collaborate or work/write with women in Iran?
Iranian women live under horrific laws that openly discriminate against them. For example, based on the law, they cannot leave the country or get a job without their husband’s permission. Yet, they are highly educated, strong, resilient, and ambitious. We work with each other, we support each other, we help each other.

What’s the most important thing you have learnt from life?
No one can help me better than myself.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am editing my completed manuscript: a novel tentatively titled Many Cunning Passages.



Echoes From the Other Land

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‘Still’ competition: winning story ‘Piano’ by AJ Ashworth

Negative Press London is excited to post the winning story of the Still/Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition. To celebrate the publication of Still, writers were invited to write a story up to 500 words, inspired by the photograph ‘The Stage (Piano)’ by Roelof Bakker.

The winning story, ‘Piano’, is written by AJ Ashworth and was selected from over one hundred submitted stories. Judge Evie Wyld said: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’

‘Piano’ is also on display at Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road until the end of November 2012.


The Stage (Piano) by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

This is not the place she thought she’d return to.

She imagined she’d be with Arthur. Strolling up the promenade as grey, northern skies broke open above them. Or lying beneath him, as he moved over her that first time – the second night of their honeymoon in a B&B in Blackpool.

Perhaps she might have returned to the births of their three children. To the first glimpse of each old face in her arms. Each a miniature Arthur, right down to the wrinkled brows and thin lips, the pale, translucent skin. All of them with long pianists’ fingers too, just like her own mother, even though none of them ever played or ever showed any interest in wanting to.

If they had, perhaps things would have been different for her. Better.

But no. Her failing mind has brought her here. To the stage of the concert hall. Standing in the wings and hidden by the curtains – those heavy ripples of yellow velvet which she would touch, if she knew she wouldn’t get her hand smacked for it.

Her mother stands just behind her, not touching but close. She can’t see her, facing towards the piano as she is, but can feel her, as if the woman is a tall, thin planet at her shoulder. Pulling on her and dark with gravity. Unaware of how she is able to draw in whoever she wants, whenever she wants them – even those she doesn’t.

There is a burst of noise from the auditorium, sudden as rain on a tin roof. The announcer looks at her his hand out towards the piano. He says her name again and then, ‘Young pianist extraordinaire’, his eyes growing wider each second she fails to move.

Finally, her mother pushes her arm. ‘Go on then,’ she says, the applause dying. ‘And don’t embarrass me.’

And she is out, beneath the hot lights, walking towards the piano. Scraping the seat out and sitting down as a sigh of air escapes from a small hole in the side of the cushion. She notices the overwhelming smell of lacquer and, then, how a tiny yellow thread from a duster has become trapped by a hairline crack in one of the keys.

‘In a grand piano,’ she recalls her mother saying during one of her lessons, ‘it’s gravity that brings the hammer to a rest after it’s hit a string. It helps you play faster.’

But when she tries to lift her hands from her lap to place them in their starting position, nothing happens. It is as if they too are being pulled down by gravity.

‘Nobody should have been left there like a sitting duck,’ her father said, later. Her mother in the mirror fussed with a curl at the back of her ear.

She’d never had another lesson after that – not from her mother, not from anyone. In all honesty, she’d probably never had the right kind of hands.

AJ Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and is a former journalist who now works in publishing. She is the winner of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize 2011 and her debut collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here was published in 2011 by Salt. This collection of short stories was also shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize and nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

A Q&A with AJ about her life as a writer will be posted here soon.

AJ Ashworth blog

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‘Still’ short story competition: A.J. Ashworth announced as winner

A big thank you to everyone for submitting stories to the Still short story competition organised by Negative Press London and Foyles – London’s iconic independent bookseller.

All the entries were read by Roelof Bakker (editor, Still) and Lisa Bywater (local marketing manager, Foyles) who together selected a shortlist of ten stories.

These ten stories were consequently read and judged by contributing Still authors Nicholas Hogg and Evie Wyld. Stories were supplied without the writers’ names.

Nicholas and Evie have selected what they felt was the strongest entry and the winning story is by A.J. Ashworth from Lancashire.

Judge Evie Wyld says: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’

Roelof Bakker, Still editor says: ‘The ten stories shortlisted were all stupendous and each highly original. I would have happily included all of them in the Still anthology. Congratulations to the shortlisted writers, but also to everyone else for entering – Lisa Bywater and myself greatly enjoyed reading your work.’

A.J. Ashworth will receive a copy of Still, a print of ‘The Stage (Piano)’, a copy of The Hummingbird And the Bear by Nicholas Hogg and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld and her story will be exhibited as part of the Still exhibition at Foyles on Charing Cross Road from Friday 26 October 2012 in the first floor Café. Her story will also be published on the Foyles and Negative Press London blogs and we look forward to interviewing her for the Negative Press London blog.

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Q&A | David Rose

David RoseDAVID ROSE LIVES IN ASHFORD. He was forty when his debut story was published in the Literary Review. He has since had around three dozen stories published in literary magazines and anthologies, as well as a mini-collection, Stripe. His first novel, Vault, was published in 2011 (Salt Publishing) and a new story, ‘Puck’ has just been published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press. The story he’s contributed to Still is about the ongoing decay of language expressed in three pages of pure bliss.

Has writing always been a part of your life?
In my teens and twenties I wrote sporadic poetry, as many do, but with no serious intention of being published. Much later, in my mid-thirties, I suddenly had an idea for a short story. I had never written fiction before, so I wrote it more from curiosity.

At the time, I was working with a woman whose daughter worked with Graham Swift’s wife, and recommended his work; it was around the time he was writing Waterland, an extract from which had been published in Granta. I then read his first novel, The Sweetshop Owner, which I admired. Through that tenuous connection with him, I wrote to him, enclosing the story. He was diplomatically encouraging, and I decided to take it a little further.

I joined a Creative Writing workshop in Staines, an evening class, which continued for some years with a nucleus of writers re-enrolling year to year, giving them/us the confidence to be objective in our criticisms of each other’s work. I enjoyed it very much.

It was at that time that I had my first story published, in The Literary Review, which had then recently come under the editorship of Auberon Waugh (I still have his hand-written letter – in blue fountain pen ink – accepting the story, after an eighteen month wait).

Sadly, I had less time to attend, and the nucleus was breaking up, so it all came to an end. I carried on writing on my own; there is no writing community I’m aware of in Ashford – it is quite small.

In a workshop/evening class, naturally the emphasis is on brevity, to give everyone a fair hearing, hence poetry and short stories were the staple (and I think the discipline of poetry is one most novelists would benefit from). But I think that the short story is the form that most suited me anyway; you can take far more risks.

So the short story was my natural form, and I had around four dozen published over the years in magazines here and in Canada. But when one attempts to interest publishers/agents in a collection, the question is always: are you working on a novel? I became so fed up with this that I started writing a novel just in order to say, yes, I’m working on one, here in the meantime is my story collection.

Needless to say, it never worked; I finished the novel, Vault, and after showing it to a couple of publishers, put it in the drawer. It was Nick Royle who, in a casual conversation which touched on novels, asked to read it, and passed it on to his agent before then taking on the role himself.

While we were still attempting to place it, he suggested writing a longer novel, which might be easier to place, since publishers buy fiction by the yard in Britain. I started one, carried on, finished it, and that now is in the drawer, where it will remain.

Vault David Rose Salt Publishing 2011Vault was written in the Staines branch of Pizza Express, do you still go there to write?
As Vault was a new genre, I needed a new writing discipline, which is where Pizza Express came in. I worked close by and went there for lunchtime coffee, with free biscuits, courtesy of a plump waitress who felt – maybe out of annoyance – that I needed fattening up. I would use that break to read, but decided to write instead, every workday writing something, however unusable, then revising and planning in the evenings. The discipline of regularity helped; it’s like riding a fixed-wheel bike – the momentum keeps you going.

I no longer work in Staines, and am no longer writing.

Do you spend a lot of time perfecting a story? When do you decide you’ve finished and you’re happy?
All my work was done initially in long hand, in pencil, to keep the draft as fluid as possible for as long as possible (it hardens once it is typed), and would be revised, then left for a few weeks, then revised again, until I became fed up with tinkering and would type it up, correct it and send it out. There is never a point where you feel satisfied with a story, only bored.

Assembly Hall Staircase (Flyer)

Assembly Hall Staircase (Flyer) © 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
I chose the OkeyKokey photograph immediately because it struck a nostalgic chord with me. Whole worlds, epochs, are summoned up in such phrases, and are lost with the loss of those phrases. I find myself at an age where remarks, words, allusions – to such things as threepenny bits or Blakeys – are met with blank stares. So I find the whole issue of language decay melancholic. And having to master computer skills made me feel even more alienated by the jargon.

This is, I think, at the root of the problem of old age: not physical age but cultural alienation, and the fact that the elderly, being no longer thought of as useful, are no longer thought of; they become invisible.

Do you often work with artists and/or use visual materials as inspiration?
‘Sere’ is the first story to be commissioned as a response to a photograph, but many stories have begun as responses to paintings, or in one case an African sculpture. The first, The Literary Review story, was the result of visiting the exhibition of Picasso’s sketchbooks; more specifically, from the catalogue introduction by Claude Picasso, expressing his feelings at seeing in galleries things he had grown up with as a child – including his toys, turned into sculptures by his father.

Other stories had similar genesis, in one case, a series of Munch paintings arranged at random, as a way of breaking the habit of plot. A more recent example, to appear in Unthology 3 in November, describes a guided tour of an art gallery for the blind, again based on a series of paintings (on postcards) arranged to form ostensibly a history of art.

And the new Nightjar Press story, which I at first refused to do, as I don’t usually write in the macabre, came from another Picasso painting, the composition of which was based on a visual pun, that of a jar as a memorial of a friend of Picasso’s of that name (Jarra).

Music too has sometimes been the starting point, and a second story in Unthology 3, probably my last, concerns the real-life case of Joyce Hatto, the pianist whose husband plagiarized other recordings on her behalf. It is a poignant story (the real one), and the fictional version has an appropriate valedictory feel.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am no longer writing.

David Rose Puck Nightjar Press




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Photographs from ‘Still’ launch event, 26 September 2012 at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London

THANK YOU! Negative Press London says a BIG thanks to all the writers (reading/non-reading) who were at the Still launch event in the Gallery at Foyles, as well to all the people who came for what was a very lively entertaining literary evening.

The readings went down a storm and the audience really enjoyed the mix of writing and related photography. It was a special treat to hear the stories read out with such passion and panache. Q&As, discussions and mingling followed!

Thanks to the writers who were there: SJ Butler, Myriam Frey, Tania Hersham, James Higgerson, Justin Hill, Nicholas Hogg, Aamer Hussein, Nina Killham, Deborah Klaassen (thanks for setting up Facebook event), Claire Massey, James Miller, Jan Woolf and Evie Wyld.

And thanks to the writers who were there in spirit: Richard Beard, Andrew Blackman, SL Grey, Ava Homa, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Jan van Mersbergen, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, Mark Piggott, Mary Rechner, David Rose, Nicholas Royle, Preeta Samarasan and Xu Xi.

A big cheers to Paul Savage for a fantastic bar service and to David Owen at Foyles for five star help and organisation.

All photographs by Roman Skyva,

If anyone has any photographs they want to share, email to (max file width 1000px at 72dpi, if possible)

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Q&A | Claire Massey

Claire Massey

Photograph by
Jonathan Bean

CLAIRE MASSEY LIVES IN LANCASHIRE. Her short stories have been published online and in print in various magazines and anthologies including The Best British Short Stories 2011, Patricide and A cappella Zoo. Two of her stories have recently been published as chapbooks by Nightjar Press. She co-edits online short story magazine paraxis and keeps a blog called Gathering Scraps. In her story ‘In the Dressing Room Mirror’ a young woman is afraid to face her own reflection.

Where are you based?
I live in an old Lancashire mill town and I grew up in another one. The landscape, which I love, has a massive impact on my work, which features lots of crumbling terraces, hills and abandoned buildings. Rain tends to permeate my stories.

Where do you write?
On the settee in my living room, in an old brown chair in my bedroom, on my bathroom floor or in the bath, or in the kitchen whilst I’m cooking tea. I spend a lot of time on trains but I prefer to use that time for daydreaming.

What made you want to become a writer?
Reading. Being read stories and being taken to the theatre as a child, and never being able to give up on the idea of playing in imaginary worlds. Writers who inspire me and who make me want to give up in equal measure include: Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Bruno Schulz, Daphne du Maurier, Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter, M John Harrison, David Constantine, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane.

Female Artists’ Dressing Room Roelof Bakker Still

Female Artists’ Dressing Room
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
It was the mirrors, the peeling paper on the ceiling and the dust on the tables. I love abandoned places, and the way the often mundane or random things that get left behind seem to brim with meaning in an abandoned setting.

Have you worked with artists before and if so, how was the experience?
No, and I’ve really enjoyed it. It was intriguing and challenging to use someone else’s creative work in this way. It made me take off from a completely different place as a writer.

Are visuals part of your writing practice?
My stories always grow from an image, either something I’ve seen in the street or something that appears in my thoughts without me necessarily being able to trace where it’s come from, but I’ve never started from a photograph before.

Do you enjoy the short story format?
Yes, I love it. I enjoy reading novels, too, but there’s something so powerful about the world that can be created in a smaller space. As a reader, I treasure short stories. I never devour collections but give each story space to linger in my mind. As a writer, short stories are an infuriating and joyful challenge. I’ll never tire of trying, and often failing, to write the stories I imagine.

What are working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished a couple of commissions so I’m taking a breath before starting on the research and imagining for a collection of short stories in which I want to explore the history of neuroscience and some of the peculiarities of the human mind, looking particularly at perception, memory and imagination. I’m also just starting work on a graphic novel set in an alternative Edinburgh with my sister.

Why did you start paraxis – an online magazine of short stories?
I’d set up and run one online magazine already (New Fairy Tales) and I really enjoyed the thrill of seeking out stories and of creating something new by putting together work from writers and artists across the world. Publishing online doesn’t give you the tactile pleasure of publishing print books (which I’ve also been lucky enough to do through my job at Litfest), but the unbelievably wide reach of the internet really appeals to me. Paraxis was born of a frustration of mine and my co-founding editor Andy Hedgecock’s with the way literary and genre fiction is so often divided up. We just wanted to publish imaginative, well-written short stories without considering labels.

Two of your stories were recently published as individual chapbooks by Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press. How did this come about?
I won a competition that Nick judged a couple of years ago with a story about a drowned village. We’ve kept in touch ever since and he’s been a brilliant mentor, editor and friend. I’ve collected all of the Nightjars. I love the quality of the chapbooks, both in their haunting content and the beautiful design, and I desperately wanted to have a Nightjar of my own. I was very nervous when I sent Nick the stories that became my Nightjars, and thrilled when he accepted them for publication.


Marionettes Claire Massey Nightjar Press

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Q&A | Justin Hill

Justin HillJUSTIN HILL LIVES IN HONG KONG. He was born on Grand Bahama Island in 1971 and was brought up in York. He is the author of five books and winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham Awards, as well as being shortlisted and nominated for a host of other awards, including the Booker. The Drink and Dream Teahouse  (Phoenix, 2002) was picked by the Washington Post as one of the best novels of 2001. Shieldwall (Little, Brown, 2011) is the first of the Conquest Series, which chronicles the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings, in 1066. It was a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2011. He doesn’t often write short fiction, but for Still he contributed a reflective story exploring the concept of doors and opportunities life offers.

What made you want to become a writer?
When I was nine I was in a rudimentary reading class. I didn’t like books and when I grew up I wanted to be a fireman. Then I read The Hobbit, and was smitten by the depth of Tolkien’s world. I followed up with Lord of the Rings, and after that I was decided: I wanted to make up stories of my own: and be a writer.

You’re from the UK. How did you end up living in Hong Kong?
I grew up in York, and all my friends at school were born in York District Hospital. I was born in the Bahamas, but came back to Yorkshire when I was three, and remembered almost nothing of my earliest years: except for looking at tropical fish through the glass bottom of a boat, and being at Disney, and going on Captain Nemo’s submarine.

While all the family friends from the Bahamas kept travelling, we stayed in York. I was determined that as soon as I was able I was going to leave England and see the world. I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and looking back, I was doing what heroes of most fantasy books did: I left kith and kin, and went on an adventure. My adventure was to go to rural China with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas.) I was working with rural English teachers in a sleepy market town called Yuncheng. The nearest foreigner was 12 hours bus drive away. The summers were sizzling. In the winter temperatures plummeted to minus twenty.

We had no heating, and I had to learn Chinese, and once, in the middle of winter, when I was wrapped up in scarves and padded jackets, I was once mistaken for a local Chinese.I loved working with VSO. It was perfect for my writing. I went from China to Eritrea, in East Africa, and then back to China. I spent seven years working as a volunteer, and was pretty sure that when I came home at the age of twenty nine that I was unemployable.

When I was twenty three I wrote my first book, and it was published and so the challenge after that was to write better books.

When I was twenty nine I finally came home, and wrote my first novel  (The Drink and Dream Teahouse) while I was at Lancaster. It was a homage to China, and I thought I had left China behind. But life moves us round. My wife was from New York, and via a cottage in Connemara, we ended up coming back east. We went back to China, but it was different with children.

There were risks I was happy to take myself, that seemed unnecessary, and so Hong Kong seemed like a good alternative. And Hong Kong has been good to us. But somewhere the future is a house in the hills north of York. All my family are still there, and I can’t think of a better place for children to grow up. I like the frankness of my fellow Yorkshire men: others mistake it for rudeness, but I like it. You know where you stand. If they don’t like something they’ll tell you. If they like something, then they’ll probably never say.

You’re working on a trilogy about the Norman Conquest. Is this a lifetime ambition? Are you feeling homesick?
Nostalgia seems to be a key part of my stories. I’ve always written about the place I just left, and while I had the idea for the novels about the Norman Conquest whilst lying in the bath in Ireland, we were about to leave for China.

I don’t think it was an ambition: but I’ve found that it’s brought me much closer to my ‘roots’: which lie very much in Tolkien, and the kind of fantasy and sci fi writers I was reading when young. They brought me into role playing games and what Tolkien and Lewis named the ‘Nameless North’: I read the sagas, Beowulf, Bede, old English poems – and growing up in York, that literature spoke to me more profoundly than anything else I’ve read. They give me an odd feeling low in my gut.

My early work was about China, and I felt a little strange writing about another culture. It’s refreshing and challenging for me to be writing about my own country. At the moment it feels like it might be my life’s work, or at least what is most popular with my readers. I’ve had a huge response for Shieldwall, which is a delight. I hope to keep going for as long as my readers keep buying.

The Green Room Roelof Bakker Still Negative Press London

The Green Room
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

What drew you to the selected photograph?
There is something intriguing about empty spaces, and especially abandoned spaces. It brought a ton of memories back, but all the time I felt as though I was looking through a doorway. I waited for a long time before writing, and the idea of writing a story about doorways came to me.

Your story ‘Waiting’ is a mini Justin Hill autobiography, also focussing on doorways in relation to life and the opportunities it offers. Can you explain the thinking behind it? Are you working on an autobiography?
One weekend I was working with some of the MFA students at City University, in Hong Kong, and had asked them to bring photographs from their lives with them.  We were playing around with different orders, and different ways of telling stories. One of them had some photos of looking through windows and I immediately though of the picture that I ended up picking and thought of structuring a story around doorways.

I was sitting down to write, when the Radio 4 piece came on, and I knew I was away: and started playing with ideas of memory and – I suppose – nostalgia!  I combined it with a collage effect, where you start writing about three different things and as you keep writing then you start to see links within the story. It’s a really fun way to write, and a nice palate cleanser after writing historical fiction, which is much more about characters, events and actions.

I’m not sure I’ve done enough to warrant an autobiography yet, but I like the idea of recording the world I grew up in: because time seems to accelerate, and the world has in many ways disappeared. For example, in China I think I lived through the end of the postal age. I wrote a letter to my family each week, and each week they wrote a letter to me, and it took a month for letters to arrive, and so it could take two months to get an answer to a question. This now, even to me, seems ridiculous.

Do you enjoy the story format?
Unlike most writers, I have come late to short stories. I wrote books first, and found them much easier than short stories. So I’ve written very few short stories, and certainly nothing so autobiographical. I’ve also never worked with another artist in this way, and found it very inspirational. I have a feeling it will lead to something longer. As I’m working on a series of narrative driven stories, this was immensely refreshing: to tell a non-linear story, where the drive is not narrative, but something more complex.

Do you use images to generate ideas?
I wrote ‘no’ at first, but then I looked around my office and saw that my office is full of images, and thinking about it, art has always been a way into writing.

I’ve always thought that in the same way you know a Picasso, you should be able to pick up a book and know that this writer is a Chatwin, or a Borges, or a Marquez. It was years before I met another writer, and while I lived in China, most of my friends were from the Art Departments, so our conversations were about the things that we held in common. So when I started writing I wanted to pick a style that fitted China. In my twenty years in China I’ve collected a lot of Chinese scrolls: calligraphy and painting, and Chinese painting seems artistically similar to writing: in that most of the page is left blank, and the brush strokes create the impression of a ‘full picture’ while traditional Western art fills the page with detail and colour.

So I have a collection of Chinese scrolls in my room, a Shenzhen oil copy of a Dutch painting of beached boats that has a huge sky, and then some postcards I’ve collected: a constant is Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai. I have a number of collections of Japanese prints. Some of them are A friend of mine is the artist Tim Ayres, who lives in Amsterdam, and his work, which combines text and image has always intrigued and fascinated me. I have a couple of his prints in my office.

Have you collaborated with visual artists before?
No, although a number of writers who are have come to me for advice, and the process has intrigued me. Writing is a particularly lonely activity, and it’s wonderful to bring someone else’s imagination or vision into the process.

I’ve enjoyed it immensely: it has brought a new kind of story out of me, and so I’d like to keep going with this process.

Where do you write?
I work from home, on the 15th floor of a Hong Kong high-rise, with Radio 4 on the internet, although the UK is generally asleep while I am working, and it is the World Service playing.

I have a great antique Chinese desk, and a Tiffany lamp, and an antique map of the North Riding of Yorkshire on my wall. It’s good, when so far from home, to see names of places that are intimately familiar.

I live in a place called Discovery Bay, which is about as unlike people’s perceptions of Hong Kong as you can get. It’s on a different island. No cars are allowed. It’s pretty low residency, and akin to living in a village back home. It is small enough that you know most people enough to say hello.

What are you working on?
I set out a few years ago to write a series of books that covered the Battle of Hastings in 1066. What we ‘know’ about those events is largely an invention of the Norman conquerors. They remind me of the neo-cons of the 11th century: and the story of England’s conquest is much more interesting and complicated.

The first book, Shieldwall, came out two years ago to great acclaim, and the second, Hastings, will be out next year.

Shieldwall Justin Hill




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