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Q&A | Ashley Stokes from Unthank Books

Ashley Stokes and a flat whiteSince publishing Still in 2012, Roelof Bakker has met a number of unique personalities in the world of independent publishing, people who are passionate about books and writing and do things in their own particular way. People like Meike Ziervogel from Peirene Press, an imprint specialising in publishing European novellas translated into English; Nicholas Royle who publishes chap books on his independent press Nightjar; and Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes from Norwich-based Unthank Books, who are leading the way in publishing new experimental fiction. The fifth instalment of their on-going series of anthologies Unthology 5, has just been published and it includes an exciting mix of talented writers, like Angela Readman, Elizabeth Baines and Jose Varghese as well as a short story by Roelof Bakker. He wanted to find out more about Unthank Books from its Short Fiction Editor Ashley Stokes, who is the co-editor of Unthology 5 as well as a celebrated author in his own right (Touching the Starfish and The Syllabus of Errors). He lives in Norwich.

How did Unthank Books come about and what made you and Robin pick the name?
Unthank Books surfaced on a rainy night in Camden. I was in London to read for Staple magazine when Robin Jones told me that he wanted to publish himself novels on his agency list that he couldn’t place with publishers. He liked these novels so much that he thought they needed to be read.

These included David Madden’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood Completed, which has gone on to be Unthank’s bestselling title, and my own Touching the Starfish. Quite soon after this we opened up the nascent press to general submissions.

We came up with the name Unthank pretty quickly. The Unthank is a piece of unclaimed land, a dystopian city in Alastair Grey’s Lanark and a road in Norwich’s Golden Triangle area, where I live, so, along with its Orwellian vibe, it seemed to fit with what we were trying to achieve.

Unthank have just published Unthology 5, part of an ongoing series of anthologies of new, unconventional experimental writing. The first Unthology was published in 2010. Why did you start this series?
Firstly, when we were still thinking of Unthology as a ‘sampler’, we wanted to use shorter work from our authors to showcase their novels. However at the time, I was myself writing short stories again after working on a long novel, and when I was looking about I realized that many journals and magazines seemed to have definite aesthetic agendas and very restricted word counts.

I thought that there was an opportunity to let writers spread their wings with longer stories beyond the 1,000-1,500 words, and allow writers to play with fire in terms of form and content. Later on I started to like the way that a quite conventional story could seem quite different if set alongside a more adventurous or experimental story, and started to pay much more attention to the arrangement of the stories in each collection, so they would have moods and atmospheres that characterized a run of stories within each book.

Unthank are a young and independent publishing company, what’s your outlook on the future of publishing?
Publishing as we knew it pre-internet has obviously changed beyond recognition. It’s easy now to see writing serious fiction, in the UK at least, as either pointless and fruitless, or a lark for insiders administered by a cartel of nepotists and nabobs. I do think that the interesting work is now being done on the periphery and I hope we contribute a vivid spark where the blade meets the rim.

Your proudest Unthank moment so far?
We’ve started a regular prose event in Norwich called Project U. Last November we launched Unthology 4 and Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes there. There was a great atmosphere in the audience and great warmth directed to the writers, one of who, Michael Crossan, had travelled overnight from Renfrewshire to read his story ‘Eden Dust’. The writers were really buzzing and I was left standing there thinking that it had all been worth it, that Unthank meant something after all.

You are also a writer and your second book The Syllabus of Errors is a series of overlapping short stories. What’s the appeal of short stories, as writer, reader and editor?
I love writing and reading short stories. There are straightforward reasons creatively for writing them. They don’t take as long as a novel to write. You can try out new techniques and experiment with material. There is not as much at stake as when you write a novel and they are easier to place.

But, other than that I love the ‘shot of vodka’ effect (Chekhov’s phrase) when you read a short story, that after-burn that you feel in the back of your throat long after you’ve swallowed. I often think of short stories as checkpoints – an obstacle reached after a long journey – or flashpoints: something long-smouldering is going to explode. It’s an infinitely variable form, really, and you can achieve things with short fiction that few other art forms can achieve.

 I love the ‘shot of vodka’ effect (Chekhov’s phrase) when you read a short story, that after-burn that you feel in the back of your throat long after you’ve swallowed.

What’s your favourite short story of all time and why?
I am terrible at answering this sort of question, because if I knew the what-and-why of this, the short story would be solved for me and its allure would dull. I am much better at making short, loose lists in no particular order. I would, if pushed, plump for ‘Metamorphosis’, simply because if a story has had 40,000 books and essays written about it, and still with a relatively linear storyline no one really knows what it means, that’s a triumph.

Otherwise, in my personal canon, stories I’d come back to again and again, I would place: ‘The Overcoat’ by Gogol; ‘Guy de Maupassant’ by Babel; ‘Spring in Fialta’ and ‘The Vane Sisters’ by Nabokov; ‘Grief’ and ‘The Darling’ by Chekov,’ ‘The Five Forty-Eight’ by Cheever; ‘Builders’ by Richard Yates, ‘Breaking It Down’ by Lydia Davis; ‘How to Be An Other Woman’ by Lorrie Moore; ‘Flora’ by David Rose; ‘The Lost Decade’ by F Scott Fitzgerald; ‘Cranley Meadows’ by James Lasdun; ‘The Depressed Person’ by David Foster Wallace and ‘Offerings’ by AJ Ashworth. I could go on, of course.

I was pleasantly surprised when my story ‘Red’ had been accepted for inclusion in Unthology 5. What made you pick this?
It did stand out for us because it’s remarkably tense for such a short piece. Its sense of urban alienation appealed to us, and we felt a certain schadenfreude while reading about a person losing her composure in public. It’s definitely a flashpoint, not a checkpoint. It also sits nicely after the dark-dark of the first two, longer stories, Angela Readmans ‘A Little More Prayer’ and KS Silkwood’s ‘Daddy’s Little Secret’. We are very wary of very short stories, so they really do have to grab us and not seem like poems in disguise. ‘Red’ did manage to get our attention.

Unthology 5Recommend one recently published book (by any press) that deserves a wider audience.
We are Glass by UV Ray (published by Murder Slim). He’s pretty out-there and a brave and honest writer. Talking of honest, I would also recommend Aidan O’Reilly’s forthcoming collection, Greetings, Hero, to be published by our friends at Honest Publishing.

What’s your favourite literary journal (print or website)?
I usually find something I’d like to read on 3:AM.

The most hotly anticipated release by Unthank is…
Meridian by David Rose, a day in the life of an architect and crafted by a master mason.

Apart from writing, editing and teaching is there something else you do that you feel passionate or obsessive about?
Berlin, fur hats and proving the existence of the North Surrey Gigantopicthecus.

Unthology 5 is available from the Unthank Books’ Online Bookshop at, Central Books, Book Depository, Waterstones and all good booksellers. Digital formats at iTunes and Amazon

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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 | 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.


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