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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.

CLAIRE MASSEY WEBSITE
PARAXIS
NIGHTJAR PRESS

Marionettes Claire Massey Nightjar Press

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Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende poses with ‘Still’

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

Read a Q&A with contributing writer Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende from Ann-Arbor, Michigan, USA.

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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

JUSTIN HILL WEBSITE

BUY SHIELDWALL

 

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Q&A | James Higgerson

James HiggersonJAMES HIGGERSON LIVES IN MANCHESTER. He’s a writer, music reviewer and urban health researcher, currently finishing his PhD. His debut novel, The Almost Lizard, will be published in spring 2013 by Legend Press. His story ‘Noise’ is his print debut.

Do you enjoy short stories?
I must admit I rarely read short fiction. When I do, I’ll read only one or two, rather than a full anthology, because I find they lose their impact if I read lots back to back. I like to get attached to characters. It’s the same with writing. If I had more time I’d follow up the short story ideas I have, but that only usually happens if I don’t have a novel that I’m writing.

Is Manchester an inspirational city?
Manchester’s a great city. I moved here straight after uni, mainly because I’d been coming over for gigs for years and loved the place. I have a few bars and coffee shops that I like to write in (those which haven’t closed down and been replaced by a Tesco and/or Gregg’s), but the city itself is inspirational. There’s a lot going on here; so many different people, different lives – it’s amazing for people watching. That said it is detached from the writing industry, which effectively lives in London, so there is that fear that you’re in the wrong place if you want to make progress (it’s not true, but it’s easy to believe at times). There are some good things happening at the moment – a group called Bad Language have recently appeared on my radar. They’re doing lots of interesting events so I’d like to investigate that more.

Where do you write?
I’ve been really lucky this year and have travelled a lot with work, so the novel I’m currently writing has been penned in Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Oslo, Ljubljana and Portugal, as well on various planes. Because of the travel I’ve returned to writing in notebooks, which has been really good. I spend far too much of my life in front of screens so I’m going to stick with the pad and paper. It’s given me back the freedom to write where I want, which I hadn’t realised I’d missed until recently. Still, the majority of my writing is either done at home or in the bar next to work at lunchtime.

What made you want to become a writer?
When I moved to Manchester, I was living with two musicians and felt like I was a lacking a creative side, so I thought I’d give it a go. I hope it wasn’t just a cynical attempt to fit in, but I don’t think it’s possible to commit the time and effort to writing a novel if that were the case. I’d written a few books (long lost, sadly) in my teens but fallen out with English at A-Level, mainly because analysing the shit out of books I only mildly cared about was predominantly tedious. I’m tone deaf and had no rhythm, so I thought I’d give writing another go. So it was those two musicians who initially made me have a go at writing. It was writing my first novel (some fictionalised but largely self-referential badness that will never see the light of day) that made me want to be a writer.It was coming runner-up in the Luke Bitmead Bursary Award in 2008 that made me realise that I stood a chance of becoming a published writer.

The Assembly Hall (Roof) from Still Roelof Bakker

The Assembly Hall (Roof)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
I was torn between a few of the photographs, but the one I chose (which I do now refer to as ‘my one’) jumped out of me because there was so much potential in it. Many ideas came about straight away, and initially was my story was going to be set within the space. I also liked that the space seemed very private compared to the other parts of the Town Hall – it provided somewhere for my character to escape to, if necessary. It was also one of the darker photos, which I’m often drawn to.

What was your approach?
Usually when I write, it isn’t directly influenced by one specific thing, like a photo, so this was a different starting point for me. Once I’d selected the photo, I then thought about what I could write about, or what it was that had drawn me towards selecting that photograph. I started off quite literally by setting the story in the room depicted in the photograph, in its current state, and trying to work out how someone would end up finding themselves in there. It appeared derelict, but through the skylight you can see that the rest of the world was scurrying on. So this room became a sanctuary from the outside world.

The first version of the story was about a man desperate to escape the Tory Government and finding this bolt-hole, only to come across a tramp who it turned out (at the end) had been hiding there since the previous Tory Government. With riots and recession and union crushing, their conversation would have revealed that little had changed between Governments. For whatever reason, though, it didn’t play out well for me when I tried to write it, so I changed the characters but kept the setting, then changed the characters and the setting. Then all it took was one bad day and the story came together very quickly.

Do you use visuals for ideas?
Not directly, but all of those things are incredibly influential overall. Most of my writing comes from things I’ve observed rather than things I’ve seen. Writing ‘Noise’ was certainly the most I’ve been directly influenced by a single photo, and also the name of the collection – Still – had an impact on the sort of story I came up with.

Have you collaborated with artists before?
A few years ago I ran a collaborative project called Bad Marmalade. We put on gigs in houses which we brought photographers in for (so the bands – who played for free – were rewarded with professional quality photos, and the photographers were able to add to their portfolios). We also ran a blog featuring commentary and short fiction. With the fiction I always tried to get an artist or illustrator to do something to accompany it. We had a good band of willing volunteers from all over the world and it all worked really well. I liked these collaborations between complete strangers. It was a shame we gave up on it when we did, because it could have really gone somewhere.

What are working on at the moment?
Another novel. This is about my eleventh attempt at writing this story, but I’ve been working on it for over a year now. Also the publishing process is slowly starting to kick in at the moment for my debut novel The Almost Lizard (had to mention it – surprised I waited until the last question!), which will be published on 1st March 2013. My PhD thesis has to be complete by December, so it’s more that than anything else at the moment. Writing is my ‘treat’ in between writing up sessions.

JAMES HIGGERSON

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‘Still’ exhibition at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London – until 30 October

The Green Room

‘Still’: an exhibition of photographs and excerpts from related stories

An exhibition of photographs from Still by Roelof Bakker has opened at Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB.

Twenty large size photographs of vacated spaces at Hornsey Town Hall are exhibited in two separate spaces: the Café on the first floor and the Gallery on the third floor.

In line with the approach of the literary art book, each photograph is accompanied by a brief excerpt from the related story with the writer’s name and story’s title included.

‘STILL’ AT THE CAFÉ ON THE FIRST FLOOR, FROM 18 SEPTEMBER TO 30 OCTOBER
With excerpts from stories by Andrew Blackman, SL Grey, Tania Hershman, Justin Hill, Ava Homa, Claire Massey, Jan van Mersbergen, James Miller and Evie Wyld.

‘STILL’ AT THE GALLERY ON THE THIRD FLOOR, FROM 18 SEPTEMBER TO 30 SEPTEMBER
With excerpts from stories by Richard Beard, SJ Butler, James Higgerson, Nicholas Hogg, Nina Killham, Deborah Klaassen, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, Mark Piggott, Preeta Samarasan and Jan Woolf.

Justin Hill, Waiting, from Still Negative Press London 2012

Excerpt from ‘Waiting’ by Justin Hill to accompany the print ‘The Green Room’

The book itself was launched at Foyles on 26 September in the Gallery with a literary event including readings by Tania Hershman, Justin Hill, Nicholas Hogg, Aamer Hussein, James Miller (with Jan Woolf) and Evie Wyld as well as a screening of the video film from the project with other visuals.

FOYLES EXHIBITION DETAILS

Negative Press London and Foyles have also launched a short story competition.

NEGATIVE PRESS LONDON AND FOYLES: SHORT STORY COMPETITION

EXHIBITIONS SPECIFICATIONS
20 C-type prints from negative film with film information borders, size 50cm x 50cm, framed. 20 plagues with story excerpts mounted on foam board.

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Photograph of the title page for new story ‘Pa-dang’ by Jan van Mersbergen

The title page for ‘Pa-dang’ by Dutch writer Jan van Mersbergen – an unsettling story and van Mersbergen’s first published English language story.

Pa-Dang Jan van Mersbergen

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Photograph of the title page for new story ‘The Blind Man’ by Nicholas Royle

The Blind Man by Nicholas Royle from Still Negative Press London

Read the interview with Nicholas Royle, including the background to his story ‘The Blind Man’ Q&A | Nicholas Royle

 

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Q&A | Nicholas Royle

Nicholas Royle

Photograph by Julian Baker

NICHOLAS ROYLE LIVES IN MANCHESTER. He’s the author of a short story collection, two novellas and six novels and has edited fourteen anthologies, including the acclaimed series, The Best British Short Stories 2011 and 2012 (Salt). His novel, First Novel, is due to be published by Jonathan Cape in 2013. Royle also runs his own press, Nightjar Press, and he’s a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Royle, together with author Andrew Blackman, offered invaluable support throughout the process of putting Still together – including suggesting that Bakker start his own press. He put his stamp of quality control on Still by taking on the copy editing with fellow editor Ros Sales (Time Out).

Roelof Bakker talks to Nicholas Royle about writing, his story ‘The Blind Man’ and his on-going support of other writers.

Did you start writing at an early age?
I wrote a poem at primary school. The opening line was ‘In the dark, dank cave’, but the teacher read it out as ‘In the dark, dark cave’. I can still hear my tiny, whining voice crying out in protest. I think that’s when I became a writer. I started writing short stories when I was 20, at the end of my first year at university. I wrote eighteen and was sending them out all over the place before I sold one.

Short story or novel?
The short story. But ask me again when my new novel is published next year.

Your new novel, First Novel, is published next year. An intriguing title, is this the book you’ve always wanted as your first novel?
Ah, I anticipated you. No, First Novel is my seventh novel to be published and the seventh one I’ve written. My first novel, Counterparts, was indeed my first novel. I am very interested in first novels. First Novel is about the same thing I’ve been writing about for many years – identity – and other stuff as well. Dark stuff.

Who or what has had the biggest influence on your life as a writer (or on life in general)?
As a writer, Derek Marlowe and M John Harrison. Both flit in and out of genres, appealing to genre readers and mainstream readers at the same time. And both write beautifully, which I aspire to do. Marlowe died in 1996; happily, Mike Harrison is not just still alive, but still writing brilliant fiction. In life in general, my parents.

The Best British Short Stories 2012, editor Nicholas RoyleYou are known as a supporter of the short story format and you’ve edited quite a number of anthologies, including the splendid new series, The Best British Short Stories 2011 and 2012 (Salt Publishing), for which you source stories from books, magazines, blogs, journals etc. How much time do you dedicate to reading?
I’m always reading either short stories for The Best British Short Stories or novels for Salt or stories submitted to Nightjar Press, or something I’ve been asked to review, or students’ work. I recently bought two novels I really want to read – M John Harrison’s Empty Space and Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child – but God knows when I’m going to get the chance to read them.

The Best British Short Stories 2011, had a great influence on me on when putting together this book. I particularly enjoyed SJ Butler’s ‘The Swimmer’ and ‘Flora’ by David Rose – both stories are incredibly visually stimulating. I got in touch with you initially to get their details, as I wanted to invite them to contribute to Still.

You were immediately supportive of the idea and offered additional author recommendations, including Claire Massey and Myriam Frey, who I consequently researched and invited. Later on, you suggested I start my own press to publish Still – which I did with Negative Press London – and you shared advice from your experience of running Nightjar PressTo put it simply, you were my mentor – alongside author Andrew Blackman. Q&A Andrew Blackman. You also copy-edited Still with renowned editor Ros Sales (Time Out), that was very important to me. Is mentoring part of your make up? Do you enjoy pushing people forward and making things happen?

I do, I love it. A lot of what I do incorporates a mentoring element, whether it’s editing anthologies or publishing stories with Nightjar Press, or novels at Salt or teaching creative writing, or even doing actual professional mentoring, which was how I came to know Tom Fletcher, a young writer whose work I had admired when I read some in an anthology. By chance I was approached and asked to mentor him for six months, which led to my becoming his agent and getting him a deal for his first two novels. I find it exciting and satisfying to work with people who I can see – and you do see it straight away, in the first paragraph, the first line sometimes – are really, really good, but maybe their talent has rough edges, their craft needs a little work, and all you have to do is encourage them and help them to see what works and what doesn’t.

What’s been happening lately with Alison Moore is one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me in the world of books – and it’s amazing when you can say that and it’s not about your own work. Alison’s first novel, The Lighthouse, is one of the first four novels I acquired for Salt, in my role as an editor there. I suggested we enter it for the Man Booker Prize and the publishers agreed. It got longlisted and as a result has been widely reviewed – very positively – and is selling well and getting an awful lot of word of mouth. Even if it’s not shortlisted, the book has benefited hugely from the process. It’s good for Alison, good for Salt, good for everyone who’s enjoyed reading it and good for me, I can’t deny it. I’ve been working with Alison since coming across one of her stories when judging the Manchester Fiction Prize in 2009. I later published one in Nightjar Press that is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. It’s easily in my top ten short stories.

The Strong Room Archive Roelof Bakker

The Strong Room (Archive)
 © 2012 Roelof Bakker

The story you’ve contributed to Still, ‘The Blind Man’, is a dark and twisted story which is strangely poetic at the same time. My feeling is that the boy in story is based on aspects of Nicholas Royle as a boy, particularly the obsession with buses and bus routes? Also, where does this dark side come from?
Yes, I used to haunt bus garages and pinch bits off scrapped buses. I had a few destination blinds, which I let go at some point. I really wish I still had them; those place names are so evocative. The ones in the story are chosen deliberately and they correspond to actual bus routes. I still have a complete set of Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive timetables from the mid 70s in lovely little ring-binders. Shoot me now, go on. I couldn’t tell you where the dark side comes from as I had a very happy childhood. I think we all have a dark side, just as life has a dark side; some of us are drawn to it. It’s fascinating. The story – like most of my stories – takes some factual biographical and autobiographical detail and embellishes it and twists it and at some point departs from the truth.

Do you use visual materials to work out ideas, like newspaper cuttings and photographs?
I used to keep press cuttings on all sorts of subjects, but I got rid of them recently, realising that I hadn’t looked at them for 20 years. I do use images a lot, which was why your project attracted me. The abandoned spaces, too, were a big draw for me. I love to prowl around disused buildings and take photographs and notes and then I might write about them, use them as locations.

Have you worked with artists previously?
There was a great project called Thirteen put together by photographer Marc Atkins. He did a series of black and white shots of female nudes and sent these out, randomly, to a number of writers. I did a story called ‘Standard Gauge’ that I still think works. In addition I collaborated with the artist Devid Gledhill to write a series of short pieces to accompany a series of paintings he did of an East German doctor and his family and their home. David worked from photographs and I worked from David’s paintings. The paintings and texts were exhibited together in a Manchester gallery and may yet form the basis of a second, bigger exhibition.

Marionettes Claire Massey Nightjar Press

A Nightjar Press chapbook

With Nightjar Press you’ve re-introduced the chapbook format: a single print publication dedicated to simply one – usually dark– short story. The books are beautifully made and give the short story format their due importance. Where did the idea come from?
Well, I wouldn’t claim to be doing something new. I came across the work of Joel Lane when a story of his, ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’, was published in a limited-edition chapbook in the mid-80s. He became one of my favourites writers and a close friend, all thanks to a young man called Mark Valentine, who had the vision and energy to publish that story as a stand-alone pamphlet – a chapbook. Twenty-odd years later I would publish stories by both Joel and Mark in Nightjar Press, bringing my interest in chapbooks full circle. I think there’s something special about the short story. A good story deserves to be made a fuss of. It deserves its own art, its own cover and ISBN.

How do you manage to fit it all in: you’re a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, a writer, an editor and a publisher?
I don’t think I do fit it all in. I’m slowly whittling away at the hours of darkness and am not getting enough sleep. Something’s got to give, I’m just not sure what yet.

Are Nightjar Press planning to publish an anthology of chapbook stories? Will there be an e-book?
I’ve been approached by a small publisher wanting to do an omnibus volume, but I don’t know. There are pros and cons. We’ll see. If it were to happen, there could conceivably be an e-book version of that.

What’s does future of publishing hold?
I like the fact that while the market has got much tougher and the business is pretty cut-throat, and big publishers are less and less interested in taking risks, small independents are doing just that – and in some cases it’s paying off. Look at this year’s Man Booker longlist. Three novels from small independent publishers. That’s brilliant.

What are you working on next?
I’m working on a new novel and I’m always working on new stories. I started a story in summer 2011 that I still haven’t finished, but I’ve done others in the meantime. There’s a non-fiction book I want to do, but I’d probably need a contract for that. Nightjar will probably go on – unless sales dwindle. I’m loving my editing role for Salt. The success of Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse has made a big difference to them – to us, I should say – but I’m as excited about the other novels I’ve got coming up – first novels by Stephen McGeagh (Habit), Kieran Devaney (Deaf at Spiral Park) and Simon Okotie (Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?), and next spring a new novel by one of my favourite writers, Alice Thompson (Burnt Island).

UPDATE: The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2012 has been announced since the interview was conducted and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is one of three novels from small independent presses to have reached not only the longlist but the shortlist as well.

NIGHTJAR PRESS
SALT PUBLISHING
BUY ‘THE BEST BRITISH SHORT STORIES 2012

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Q&A | Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Sarah Ladipo ManyikaSARAH LADIPO MANYIKA LIVES IN SAN FRANCISCO. She was raised in Nigeria and has lived in Kenya, France and England before moving to San Francisco, where she teaches at San Francisco State University. Her debut novel, In Dependence, was published by Legend Press (2008). Her story ‘Morayo’ explores the impact of an accident on an elderly female writer.

Tell me about San Francisco…
San Francisco is a great city for writers in that it has many excellent bookshops; a fantastic library system and many venues where authors can hear other writers (famous and not so famous) discuss their work. It is a beautiful city that takes great pride in its cuisine, landscape and tolerant attitudes. Now if only that were all it took to be a good writer!

What lead you to become a writer?
I began writing out of a hunger for stories that explored certain locations, peoples, and ideas that nobody else seemed to be writing about. This continues to be one of the primary reasons why I write today.

Town Clerks' Office (Shelves) Roelof Bakker Stillker

Town Clerks’ Office (Shelves)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this picture?
When I first saw this image of empty bookshelves I tried to imagine what was there before. Many things might have occupied these shelves but as I writer I was drawn specifically to books. I then began to wonder about the sort of person that might have owned or used the books. What if these shelves once belonged to an older lady who was a writer, and what if these books were the woman’s most valuable possession? What if, one day, she was separated from her books with no hope of retrieving them?

Short story or novel?
I enjoy the short story form and often find it easier to manage than longer narrative forms such as the novel. This is especially the case when I am trying to juggle writing with other work and family commitments.

Are visuals a useful writing aid?
I am frequently inspired by people that I have observed or by snippets of conversation that I have overheard. However, having now written this story to accompany a photograph, I find myself increasingly drawn to other photographs as an additional source of inspiration.

What are working on at the moment?
I am working on several projects at the moment including a longer version of my story ‘Morayo’ — turning it from a short story into a novella.

SARAH LADIPO MANYIKA WEBSITE
BUY ‘IN DEPENDENCE’
In Dependence Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Q&A | Aamer Hussein

Aamer HusseinAAMER HUSSEIN LIVES IN LONDON. He was born in Karachi and moved to London in 1970. His stories have since been widely anthologised and translated into Italian, French, Arabic and Japanese. He has published five collections of short fiction, including Insomnia (2007), and two novels, Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. He will be reading from his story ‘The Tree At the Limit’ at the Still launch event on 26 September at Foyles.

What made you want to become a writer?
I realised it was the only thing I was really good at when I was thirty. Before that I sang, but hated to perfom in public, which was a bad attitude for a singer in the 1980s.

Are visuals part of your writing practice?
Yes, very often; but never to the extent I did here within so short a space. My novella Another Gulmohar Tree was about an illustrator of children’s books who wants to paint more ‘serious’ pictures, and a part of the book is about her journey. I pored over monographs of paintings for both.

Why did you pick this photograph?
I love windows and I love trees. An element of mystery pervades the photograph I chose. I originally thought I’d write a ghost story, but the story I eventually wrote kept encroaching.

Assembly Hall Staircase (Window)

Assembly Hall Staircase (Window)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

What’s ‘The Tree At the Limit’ about?
The germ of the story had been with me for twelve years; it was inspired by seeing an autumn leaf whirl by me on a railway platform, and the mental image of a woman watching it. As I began to work work on it, I realised I wanted to let the story emerge entirely through painted images, and texts and photographs that contextualised those images from the point of view of art critics and historians. A parallel theme of faith and doubt revealed itself as I wrote.

Do you prefer to write short stories or novels?
I like to follow a sequence of ideas and work on books of stories! I definitely prefer the short story form, and all the longer fiction I’ve published  has started as something shorter. On the other hand, as a novice I often started something I thought would be longer – a novel – and found I’d said it all in about twenty to thirty pages.

Where do you write?
I draft in the sitting room where I can see branches pressing against my third floor window, and revise in the study-cum-dining room where I see rooftops and sky. Windows don’t distract me; quite the opposite.

Have you collaborated with artists before?
No, but I’ve always wanted to and would like to, again.

What are you working on at the moment?
Two collections of stories, quite unintentionally; the second one is in my mother tongue, Urdu, and though there are slight overlaps of subject matter it is quite a different book from the English one.

BRITISH COUNCIL: WRITER INFO
BUY ‘THE CLOUD MESSENGER’
The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein

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