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

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

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

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

Piano

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AJ Ashworth blog

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Q&A | David Rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assembly Hall Staircase (Flyer)

Assembly Hall Staircase (Flyer) © 2012 Roelof Bakker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Rose Puck Nightjar Press

DAVID ROSE BLOG

NIGHTJAR PRESS

BUY VAULT

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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 | 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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How interesting projects come about

The book Still probably would never have happened, if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of Andrew Blackman, the first writer that photographer Roelof Bakker contacted.

There’s an inspiring post on his blog on how interesting projects come about. The post also explains how Blackman helped kickstart Still. ANDREW BLACKMAN WEBSITE

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