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Q&A | Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

Barbara Mhangami-RuwendeBARBARA MHANGAMI-RUWENDE LIVES IN ANN ARBOUR, MICHIGAN, USA. She’s currently working on a short story collection and a novel. Her story ‘Opportunity’ explores a mother’s hopes for her daughter in contemporary Zimbabwe.

How did get into writing?
I have written and enjoyed doing so from about the age of twelve. However, my friend and mentor, Sarah Ladipo Manyika (who put her forward for Still – ed), got me to start writing seriously for publication. She has been a wonderful source of encouragement and one of my biggest cheerleaders. My family have also been very supportive.

Why short stories?
I love the short story format, both as a writer and a reader. I enjoy the brevity of it as a writer, because taking care of four lively young girls does not lend itself to the intensity of focus that writing a novel requires. I like the sense of completion I feel with a short story, and I can write one in a few hours. Of course, then comes the editing and so on.

Is life good for a writer living in Michigan?
Being a writer in Michigan is no different from being a writer elsewhere. I guess this is because of the stories I like to write. They are created in my mind. My physical location seems to have no bearing on the creative process. Perhaps it is fair to say that I enjoy living in Ann Arbor and therefore that joy and contentment allows for a good writing mood.

Maintenance Room (Poster) by Roelof Bakker

Maintenance Room (Poster)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
It tugged at something in me, though I had no idea what I was going to write. I kept coming back to it, until I finally gave in and downloaded it.

What is the thinking behind ‘Opportunity’?
I honestly cannot claim that there was some great ‘thinking’ or approach to the story. I simply looked at the picture and words like light, education, power and freedom started tumbling about in my head. Then a little girl and her mother came to life. This was different to how I usually write. Normally I have a whole story basically in me before I sit down to write. This time the story unfolded as I wrote. I write social commentary and most of my fiction is around social justice issues so the subject matter was not really new.

Do you use visuals to develop ideas?
I generally don’t use visuals. However, since this project, I have found that I enjoy using images alongside social commentary. For example, I recently did a piece on human trafficking for my blog and it is peppered with photographs.

What’s next?
I’m putting together a short story collection, as well as a collection with five other Zimbabwean writers with whom I was nominated for a literary competition. I am also working on a memoir, but that’s a long-term project.

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Q&A | Mary Rechner

Mary Rechner

Photograph by Christy Goldsby

MARY RECHNER IS FROM PORTLAND, OREGON, USA. Her short story collection Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, was published in 2010 by Propeller Books and was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her story ‘The Playwright Sits Next to her Sister’, explores the relationship between two very different sisters. She’s working on a new book, a linked story collection, Living and Dying on the East Coast.

What’s it like living in Portland?
Being a writer in Portland is like belonging to a large rowdy non-exclusive club.

Short story or novel?
It may be old-fashioned American slang to say so, but short stories are the bomb.

What made you start to write?
Life made me want to write. Life, and a fear of chaos.

The Stage (Curtains) Roelof Bakker Still

The Stage (Curtains)
 © 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you choose the photograph of the stage curtains at Hornsey Town Hall?
I selected it, because one of the characters in the linked story collection Living and Dying on the East Coast is a playwright. Writing about this photograph was a great way for me to put two of my characters (sisters) in extremely close proximity – in this story they inhabit a funny public/private space.

Do visuals and art inspire your writing?
I love looking at art in galleries and museums; I find the work of other artists thrilling, and I’m inspired by everyone who cultivates a creative practice.

Have you collaborated with visual artists in the past?
I have worked with my friend, photographer Christy Goldsby; she took this photo of me in Portland, Oregon. We really have rainbows like this!


Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women by Mary Rechner

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Q&A | James Miller

James MillerJAMES MILLER LIVES IN LONDON and is the author of the acclaimed literary thrillers Lost Boys (Little, Brown 2008) and Sunshine State (Little, Brown 2010). He teaches creative writing and English literature at Kingston University. His story ‘From the Archive’ is an academic spoof set in the future in which fragments from the First Digital Age (2000-2037) are examined. He will be reading from ‘From the Archive’ with fellow writer Jan Woolf at the Still launch event 26 September 2012 at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, London.

What’s the appeal of London?
I live in London because it’s the centre of the universe. A writer can either be in the centre or on the margins. I’m on the margins but within the centre. I love London.

Where do you write?
Usually in the British Library. It’s like going to the office. One needs to be disciplined and follow a structured routine.

What made you take up writing?
I’ve always thought one is basically born a writer. It’s a vocation or maybe a curse. I was brought up in the Home Counties which are a nice place to be but also incredibly boring – people live in the Home Counties because they know it’s a place where nothing will ever happen. Nothing happened during my childhood and adolescence but I always had an incredibly intense imagination and a strong curiosity about the wider world – it was obvious to me that a lot was happening in the world, just not in Surrey. For me I think writing was a way of bridging the distance between the boredom of my surroundings, the intensity of my imagination and my awareness of all the drama, tragedy and struggle of the wider world. I also just like telling a story, entertaining and provoking people. I’m a provocative individual.

The Council Chamber by Roelof Bakker

The Council Chamber
 © 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
I was struck by the symmetry of the picture.

What’s the idea behind your story ‘From the Archive’?
There were a couple of ideas. For a start, I’m interested in the way archaeologists are able to draw conclusions about a civilisation based on a few fragments of evidence and I found myself thinking, ‘what if this picture was one of the few remaining objects from this particular epoch? What conclusions might the archaeologists of the future draw from it?’ In addition to being a novelist, I’m also an academic and teach a lot of critical theory. I love theory, but it also amuses me to send-up some of the jargon and ideas behind critical theory, so I thought it would be fun to write a sort of academic spoof, parodying certain styles of academic writing while passing oblique satirical comment on our own culture.

Do you tend to use visuals to inspire your writing?
Yes! I keep large digital folders of images, both taken by myself or culled from the internet. I often adapt or distort them using Photoshop. As a child I loved comics and used to write and draw my own. I was always attracted to these fusions of word and image, and collecting images in this way is a continuation of this practice.

Do you prefer to write short stories or novels?
I like both. One can’t be prescriptive, the form has to fit the idea. Some ideas are best expressed in a short story, some in a novel.

Sunshine State by James MillerHave you collaborated with artists before?
No, but it’s something I’m open to. I did try to collaborate with a street artist called Part2ism because he was painting images of a naked woman in a gas mask all over east London at the same time as my first novel Lost Boys came out – and I was struck by the uncanny synchronicity of his images and certain scenes in that novel involving a sadomasochistic gasmask wearing prostitute. He kindly let me use some of these images on my website. We tried to organise an event together but it never happened. I’m always open to collaboration across disciplines. I’ve found visual and experimental artists tend to understand my work better than most literary critics.

Any new novels in the pipeline?
I’m about two thirds of the way through a novel called either Capitalist Punishment or The Grid, or maybe something different. It’s about the present global financial crisis, amongst other things.


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Q&A | SJ Butler

SJ ButlerSJ BUTLER LIVES IN EAST SUSSEX, UNITED KINGDOM. Her first published short story, ‘The Swimmer’, appeared in The Warwick Review and in Best British Short Stories 2011 (Salt Publishing, 2011). She has since had stories published in Paraxis, Litro and Untitled. As a member of the ReAuthoring project, she creates work for live literature events. She’s contributed ‘A Job Worth Doing’ to Still, a story with a sensual, almost meditative, mood.

Was it easy to select a photograph?
I didn’t think too hard when choosing – I went on instinct, but this picture appealed both because of the beauty of the wood and the freedom it gave me: anything can happen in a room with a table and a phone.

The Gentlemen's Members Room (Telephone)

The Gentlemen’s Members Room (Telephone)
 © 2012 Roelof Bakker

What is the thinking behind your story?
Thinking is possibly too strong a word for the process I went through when writing this – but I remember that the grain of the wood made me wonder about where the table started out. And I was affected by the theme of abandonment in the other photos in Roelof’s collection.

How do generate writing ideas?
I don’t really generate ideas consciously. They seem to surface on their own, and it’s my job to grab them before they float away again. A lot of the time my stories are inspired by a place, into which a character walks (or swims) and I watch to see what happens. I do that watching while I write so I usually don’t know the shape of the story until I’ve finished the first draft.

Do you enjoy the short story format?
I love writing short stories – as an obsessive perfectionist it’s the ideal form, as I hope every time that I can write the perfect story that works in every way. I’ve never done it, of course, but I’ll keep trying.


Bless the Countryside

Where are you based?
I live in a village in East Sussex, and have no idea what it would be like to be a writer anywhere else. I’m firmly rooted here and though I often write about other places, my sense of a landscape’s effect on a person is a strong influence on my writing. The photo of graffiti on a local railway bridge sums up what I feel about living here – it’s beautiful and quiet, but it’s not bucolic and I love the fact that the tag BTC stands for Bless The Countryside.

What made you want to become a writer?
I can’t remember – there was no blinding flash of light which made me leap for a notebook. It’s been a slow burn. Or I’m a late developer.

You’ve collaborated before?
Last year I worked with Steffi Pusch on a hand-printed illustrated edition of my short story, ‘The Swimmer’, for Old Stile Press. This time, the story existed already, and Steffi went out to take photos in response to it, so really my role was one of admiration and encouragement – and utter glee when we held the finished book in our hands.

What are doing at the moment?
I’ve just finished creating and performing a couple of stories live, which was terrifying but made me look afresh at my writing. Now I’m rewriting some stories I didn’t think were up to scratch by performing them to myself – it’s much less stressful than telling stories to a live audience, except that I keep interrupting myself with suggestions for improvements.


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Q&A | SL Grey

SL GREY (Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg)SL GREY IS A COLLABORATION OF TWO WRITERS FROM SOUTH AFRICA: Sarah Lotz from Capetown and Louis Greenberg from Johannesburg. Their first novel, The Mall, was published by Corvus in 2011. Their new novel The Ward will be published 1 October 2012. Their next novel, The New Girl, is due for publication in 2013. For Still they wrote ‘Still’, a story with a reflective, downbeat and haunting mood.

Do you enjoy collaborations?
SL: That’s what S.L. Grey is all about. We’re a collaboration between Capetown-based Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg from Johannesburg. It was Louis’ first experience at collaboration, but as a screenwriter and also half of YA zombie novelist Lily Herne, Sarah is very used to collaboration. We work well together and we are able to pool our complementary skills. Also, the combined energy keeps the momentum going even through rough patches.

What’s it like being a writer in South Africa?
SL: South Africa has a huge community of talented writers and a small pool of very dedicated and discerning readers. Publishing in South Africa alone can only ever be a very rewarding hobby, and breaking into the international market is a difficult prospect. Sometimes it seems that South African stories put us in a desirable niche, and other times South African settings seem an obstacle to international readership. It’s hard to gauge and difficult to plan for; all we can really do is write the sort of books we like to read, wherever they might be set.

The Green Room (Raffle) by Roelof Bakker

The Green Room (Raffle)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

You picked a photograph taken in the Green Room at Hornsey Town Hall, showing a 1960s poster for a local raffle. Why this particular photograph?
SL: It struck us as very sad. The sign with ‘Raffle’ on it speaks of departed joy. You can hear the echoes of happy voices now gone.

What did you want to express with ‘Still’?
SL: We wanted to put that terribly sad mood into our story, because that’s the feeling most of the photos evoked. Our novels and short fiction to date have been quite satirical with a lot of laughs mixed in with the chills, so such a sombre mood was something new for us. It’s Roelof’s fault for taking these photos. Over the next couple of years we’ll be trying all sorts of moods and subjects. Our short stories in an upcoming Pandemonium anthology will be something different again, and our thrid novel, The New Girl, due for release in 2013 has a different tone from The Mall and The Ward.

How do you come up ideas?
SL: Mostly we start off with a base of everyday suburban life and twist it around. So, the things we see every day are the visual background and the warped pictures in our minds serve as the over-layer. Our writing is very visual.

The Ward by SL GreyHow did you become writers?
L: My father was a journalist and editor and my mother an English and Latin teacher. I grew up with books around me – very few children’s books, but I’d just breathe in the atmosphere of the covers and the ink.
S: I’ve been writing stories for fun since I was small as a way to escape, so I can’t actually recall exactly what or who influenced me to do this (although I suspect it was reading too much Stephen King and PKD at an early age). I’m still gobsmacked that I’m fortunate enough to do what I love for a living.

What’s next?
SL: Right now, Louis is working on Dark Windows, a solo literary thriller set in an alternative-present Johannesburg. Sarah is working on The Army of the Left, the third book in Lily Herne’s Deadlands series.


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Q&A | Jan Woolf

Jan WoolfJAN WOOLF IS A WRITER AND REVIEWER WHO LIVES IN LONDON. Her first book Fugues on a Funny Bone, a collection of short stories, was published by Muswell Press in 2010. She’s currently putting the finishing touches to a novel based on the memoirs of a Polish painter. The story ‘Ten a Day’ revisits the concept of French Revolutionary Time.

How did you become a writer?
Writing took over from visual art in my 40s. I have to thank a Mr David Barnes – my secondary modern art teacher – for giving me the self-belief I could make any art at all.

Where do you live?
In London: everything is here. It’s a rough diamond and I love it: both for its stimulating subject matter and access to other writers. Most of our free public spaces have little clumps of writers in them, you see a group of people, heads down, talking earnestly, but they’re helping each other with their books.

Where do you write?
Depends on what else is going on and the time of year, and also what kind of writing (I also edit and publish). At the moment I write in bed on my laptop till 9am, then go to the allotment (I’m lucky to have one) with a notebook. I do ‘work’ type writing in the sitting room in view of the kettle, and sometimes take off to the FreeWord centre or the London Library.

If I’m stuck over something or need an idea – I find a moving train helps. I aways have a notebook for thoughts or observations – which means I’m never ‘off’ it. A bit tyrannical really.

The Committee Rooms (Screen and Clock) by Roelof Bakker

The Committee Rooms (Screen and Clock)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
I am drawn to clock faces, and there are fewer of their lovely faces around because of digital technology. I also liked the composition – like a moon over that slab of blue. Yellow and blue are lovely too.

What is the thinking behind ‘Ten A Day’?
The story leaked out of my psyche (if that isn’t too pretentious). Having chosen that image I was thinking about how we deal with time, and recalled a walk I was on with my walking group CLOG. We explored the Folkestone Trienalle last summer and I was struck by Ruth Ewan’s installation, where she changed 5 of the towns public clock faces to the old French republican 10 hour clock. My story – ‘Ten a Day’ –  tells the rest.

Do you work with visuals?
All the time. I went to art school and constantly key into the visual. One of my art heroes is Kurt Switters whose rips, tears, assemblages made such wonderful visual poetry. Its own language.

You’ve published a volume of linked short stories, Fugues on a Funny Bone. Is short fiction your preferred format?
I write short stories, as I thought I couldn’t handle the long haul of a novel. I prefer the instant ‘Gestalt’ psychology of visuals, haikus and the short form. Actually, its not like that at all, short stories take ages and you spend as much time reducing language as you take building it in a novel. But now, I’m writing a novel. Every idea finds its right form though.

Fugues on a Funny BoneDo you enjoy collaborations?
Yes, I do. I have done lots of collaborations: exhibitions against wars, collaborations in campaigns like the Free Museums Campaign, art auctions, benefits. This kind of work has a political edge and purpose and the camaradie is lovely, with egos tamed by the cause.

Writing stories and novels is solitary though, until I take knotty bits to one of my writers’ groups. Being in the Writers Guild is also important – as it makes me feel part of something much wider.

What are working on at the moment?
A novel based on the memoirs of a Polish painter. It’s taking so long, that new short pieces of work are forming in its slipstream. I nearly have a new collection ready. The first Fugues on a Funny Bone was published by Muswell Press in 2010.


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Q&A | Andrew Blackman

His debut novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009) won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.

Blackman was the first writer Roelof Bakker approached. His immediate enthusiasm helped kickstart Still. His novel, A Virtual Love, will be published in 2013. For Still he wrote ‘Sanctuary’, a story about a wounded criminal seeking sanctuary in a church in Kilburn.

Did you always want to be a writer?
Writing was always my way of understanding the world and expressing myself in a way I could never seem to do verbally. I was a shy, awkward child who always seemed to say the wrong thing, but discovered that in stories I could take my time and find exactly the right words. My rationale has changed somewhat over the years, but that was the initial impetus, and I think it still plays a role.

Which challenges you more, short stories or novels?
I see myself primarily as a novelist, and spend a lot more time writing novels than short stories. I enjoy exploring themes and characters in the depth that a novel allows. The short story is a different kind of challenge, though, and I like to write stories as a change of pace and as a way to experiment and develop my writing. I wouldn’t say I’m a short-story expert, though, like some of the other writers in this collection.

Male Artists' Dressing Room (Clock) by Roelof Bakker

Male Artists’ Dressing Room (Clock)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select the ‘bleeding’ clock photograph?
When I went to see Roelof’s original photography exhibition in Hornsey Town Hall one murky evening back in November 2010, this photograph was my favourite – it was the one I highlighted in my blog post about the event. The rusty water trickling down the wall looked like a trail of blood, and the stopped clock was a great visual metaphor for the way that the town hall had been stuck in time since its abandonment.

What is the thinking behind ‘Sanctuary’?
When I chose the photo, I had no definite story idea in mind – just the ever-potent themes of blood and time. Then I was cleaning out my pockets and found a note I’d scribbled on a scrap of paper that just said ‘Sanctuary – still exists?’ I remembered I’d been thinking about the medieval right of criminals claiming sanctuary in a church, and wondering when this was last exercised.

When I found the note, everything came together, and I saw I could bring in the blood (a powerful religious image in itself) by asking what would happen if a murderer with blood on his hands tried to claim sanctuary today. The clock comes in because there’s a time limit before police storm the church, and also because the story is about a man out of his own time.

This was a very different story from my usual work, much more violent and action-based. Using the photograph as inspiration got me thinking in different ways, and experimenting with something I wouldn’t normally try.

Do you use visuals to generate writing ideas?
I wouldn’t say that I generate ideas at all, because that implies a level of control that I don’t feel I have. Instead, ideas come to me when I’m doing something totally different, like going for a walk or waking from sleep. Sometimes this can be a visual image, but more often it’s word-based: a phrase that sticks in my head, or a ‘what if?’ question that occurs. I wrote a post about the process earlier this year. READ

Andrew Blackman On the Holloway RoadYou’ve been living in Barbados recently. Are you enjoying life in the sun?
It’s a beautiful place, with lots to inspire. It’s peaceful compared to London, and I’ve been able to concentrate a lot more on my writing. I’ve only been here a short time, but managed to meet some local writers at the inaugural Bim Literary Festival.

What are you working on?
My second novel, A Virtual Love, is finished and due out in spring 2013, so I’m hard at work now on the third. It’s loosely based on the true story of my great great grandfather, who was supposed to be the pretender to the throne of Spain, but gave it up to move to England and photograph hippos at London Zoo.


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Q&A | Tania Hershman

In the first of a series of interviews with writers from Still, Tania Hershman talks about her life as a writer and her approach to the story she wrote for Still.

Tania Hersham

TANIA HERSHMAN LIVES IN BRISTOL. Her first book, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), was commended in the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and included in New Scientist’s Best Books of 2008. Her collection of short stories My Mother Was an Upright Piano: Fictions was published in 2012 (Tangent Books). For Still, she has contributed a strange, disturbing story called ‘Switchgirls’.

Did you always want to be a writer?
I began writing as a small child. I think it was Roald Dahl that started my love for stories. Then, after a slight detour via a BSc in Maths and Physics and a career as a science journalist, Ali Smith was one of those who returned me to my first love and it’s been short stories ever since.

You’ve published two volumes of short stories, the most recent My Mother Was an Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012). The perfect form for you?
I love short stories. I am addicted to them. I read short stories voraciously, it’s all I talk about, I’m probably quite boring! I do write other things – some poetry, I’ve adapted a few of my stories into scripts for radio and film. I’m open to suggestion, but I do adore brevity

How do you generate ideas?
I tend to use words as inspiration – borrowing phrases from poetry etc… But I also always keep a look out when I’m out and about. I do think I’m more of a verbal person, not so visual, but whenever asked to take inspiration from a photo or video, I’ve loved doing that. I am tempted by Word Art or Text Art, doing something with my words in a visual way.

You live in Bristol. Is it a good place to live the writer’s life?
It’s lovely living here, we moved here from Jerusalem 3 years ago. I grew up in London, but lived in Israel for 15 years, so I don’t quite feel English any more. Bristol has lots of lovely cafés that are ideal for a writer to write in, in fact I am writing in one now.

The other great thing about Bristol for me, is the Bristol Short Story prize: now one of the world’s greatest prizes for a single short story. This year we held the second ShortStoryVille – a one-day celebration of the short story, so this really is the perfect city for me. I am also very lucky to be writer-in-residence here at Bristol University’s Science Faculty, headed by a Dean of Science who is very open to art-science collaborations.

And where do you write?
Sometimes in my writing shed at the end of the garden. Sometimes (often) in bed. Sometimes in cafes. A lot of the time – in my head.

Enquiry and General Offices (Lightswitch) by Roelof Bakker

Enquiry and General Offices (Lightswitch)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

You picked the photograph of the light switch, why?
Because I’m contrary! Why else would you select a photograph of… four light switches. Four LIGHT SWITCHES. Hmm. I really think I picked that to challenge myself most. I think it worked!

Is ‘Switchgirls’ a new direction for you?
This is one of the most surreal stories I’ve written, and I do usually write quite surreal stories. It has a science-fiction-ish flavour, I think, but I do prefer to leave those kinds of things to the reader. I’ve learned that with very short stories it doesn’t matter so much what I think I’ve written, readers read them differently, I need to let that go.

Have you collaborated with artists before?
I have done one, it was the PhotoStories project organised by Notes From The Underground. Each writer picked a photo, wrote a story inspired by it, and then a designer incorporated the story into the image to produce a new entity: a typograph. I loved doing that! The typographs have been exhibited in several venues and there are plans for further exhibitions, I believe.

My Mother Was an Upright Piano by Tania HershmaWhat are you working on?
Ha, well, yes. No large overarching project, but I just sent an entry to the Wellcome Trust Screenwriting prize, an idea for a biomedicine-inspired feature film. I am also working on a sort of novella thingy, not ready to say any more about that. And stories, always more stories, many inspired by my residency in a biochemistry lab. I have a packed few months coming up, with readings from my new book, My Mother Was an Upright Piano: Fictions (Plymouth Book Festival, Cork Short Story Festival, Ragged Stone in Portishead, Stories Aloud in Oxford, Swansea University), workshops (Mr B’s in Bath, Cork Short Story Festival, Arvon Foundation) and as a judge for this year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for popular science books. Exhausts me just to write all that!


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Contributing writers announced

There are twenty-six writers contributing new short stories to Still and they are from all over the globe or have roots in many places, including Great Britain, USA, Canada, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Writers are in alphabetical order: Richard Beard, Andrew Blackman, SJ Butler, Myriam Frey, SL Grey, Tania Hershman, James Higgerson, Justin Hill, Nicholas Hogg, Ava Homa, Aamer Hussein, Nina Killham, Deborah Klaassen, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Claire Massey, Jan Van Mersbergen, Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, James Miller, Mark Piggott, Mary Rechner, David Rose, Nicholas Royle, Preeta Samarasan, Jan Woolf, Evie Wyld and Xu Xi.

Brief biographies at and look out for in-depth author interviews appearing here on the Negative Press London blog over the next few weeks.

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